Over the years, Joe Wright made a habit of donating money to his alma mater, St. John’s Prep School. A 1981 alumnus who later graduated from Harvard and the University of Wisconsin Law School, he has a deep respect and affection for the school that sits amid the pines and lakes of central Minnesota. But when the 38-year-old attorney recently learned more about past sexual abuse involving abbey monks, he stopped sending checks.
“I don’t think my reluctance to give will last forever,” Wright said the other day from his office in Madison, Wis. “But I certainly want to send a message. And I think it’s important that they recognize that at least this alum feels like we were not told everything when the initial stuff happened.
“I understand there’s a covenant between them and other monks. But the bottom line is, they need to make that place safe.”
As administrators and authorities investigate activities of about a dozen monks living under restrictions at St. John’s, officials of the abbey, university and prep school are being overwhelmed with questions from students, parents and alumni.
At stake: St. John’s reputation in academic and religious circles, as well as its connections to the heavily Catholic area around St. Cloud in which it is located.
Abbot John Klassen said that in the past few weeks, St. John’s has received 300 to 400 e-mails in response to news reports about the sex abuse, a Stearns County investigation into possible connections between one of the monks and an unsolved double homicide, and the unsolved 1989 disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.
Most of the correspondence – about 90 percent, Klassen said – has been supportive of his attempt to address issues of sex abuse more directly than previous abbots.
But the others, he said, have been “very angry.”
“The anger is such that it is grounded in a fundamental distrust,” Klassen said. “So any message we send out at this point is simply not credible.”
A real sadness
Until the media attention, St. John’s was known mostly for its university, its prominence and leadership in the religious community and its scenic 2,400-acre campus about 80 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Many of its alumni, who include former U.S. Sens. Dave Durenberger and Eugene McCarthy, are passionate about the institution and its traditions. Sons follow fathers and grandfathers to Collegeville, and autumn Saturdays find men from around the state returning to campus to root for the all-male college’s football team and catch up with each other.
Jim Bassett, a retired book publisher from Randolph, Minn., had an uncle who graduated from St. John’s in the 1930s. Bassett graduated in 1958. Over the past 18 years, he’s had six sons graduate from St. John’s and two daughters graduate from St. Benedict’s, the sister school a few miles away in St. Joseph.
Bassett says he returns to campus on football Saturdays not so much to watch the game, but to stand on the hill overlooking the stadium to chat with friends.
“I think there’s a real, real strong feeling, a connection, so to speak,” Bassett said. “All of my kids have just loved it. One of my daughters said to me, `I cried nearly every day my last semester there because I was going to leave.’ ”
Said Carver County Attorney Mike Fahey, who attended the university in the early 1970s and ran track and cross-country, “It’s probably the best experience of my life. Just the setting at St. John’s – it is, in a sense, a community up there. It’s so serene and peaceful.”
But the sex-abuse scandal has shaken that sense of community, on and off campus.
“There is a real sadness that this is part of our story and that this is who we are,” Klassen said. “And there’s a growing awareness that this is probably not going to be a blip.”
Said the Rev. Ian Dommer, the prep school’s principal: “It’s kind of like a pall that’s always kind of hanging there. Especially for the monks. It’s kind of a numbing thing, like I guess this is part of the scenery now.”
Even before Stearns County authorities disclosed this month that they were investigating one of the monks for possible connections to a 28-year-old unsolved double homicide and the unsolved Jacob Wetterling kidnapping, the university’s student newspaper clarified the stakes.
“Make no mistake: the abbey is the heart of everything with the St. John’s moniker,” said an editorial in the April 25 edition of The Record. “Until the monks can overcome these troubles, none of St. John’s institutions will be completely free of this scandal’s shadow.”
The scandal, it said, “has serious implications for the ability of St. John’s to overcome the stigma such allegations carry. As such, the long-term health of St. John’s may be compromised.”
Just how devastating the fallout might be is uncertain. Much depends on how the abbey continues to deal with the issue, and what comes of the investigations.
“I think the support for us is broad and deep because of what the institution has done,” Klassen said.
“However, I do think people – friends, alums and those who support us – are looking to see how assertive and direct we are in our response.”
Jon McGee, vice president for planning, research and communication at the university, said the abbey, prep school and university administrators have received “better than 200 phone calls” on the issue. The university’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Mary Milbert, said her office has received fewer than 10 calls from parents “who have asked questions and expressed concerns.”
None of the 465 men currently enrolled for their freshman year next fall has indicated a change in plans, Milbert added. Nor is she aware of any students who plan to transfer.
At the prep school, also on the abbey grounds, every student currently in grades 7 through 11 plans to return in the fall, said the Rev. Gordon Tavis, president of the 312-student boarding and day school.
Still, Tavis said several parents have reconsidered sending their children to summer camp on campus. And in one case, parents of a student who had planned to enroll next fall indicated that the student no longer plans to attend, Tavis said.
Others say the real impact on all of the St. John’s institutions may not be known for years.
“If they think they measure the effect on the school by how many people call up and say they are not coming, they are mistaken,” Wright said. “It’s not the kid who calls up and says `I’m not coming.’ It’s the kid whose parents never will consider it.”
Addressing the issue
Klassen also has said that there could be a substantial financial impact on the abbey because of the payments it makes to support the counseling and therapy of identified victims. He did not specify sums.
Bob Foster, a Minneapolis attorney and St. John’s University alumnus, said he thinks financial contributions could suffer. “I think you’d have to be naive to say that it won’t. The person who is a reluctant giver anyway, when he gets called by St. John’s, he’ll have an excuse not to give.”
With university students home for summer vacation, the St. John’s campus is quiet. But those watching from afar look in with a mix of apprehension and sadness.
“I think folks are sitting down here wondering, `Is there another shoe that’s going to drop?’ ” said Roger Aronson, a Minneapolis attorney and a 1976 graduate of St. John’s University. “I love St. John’s, but it’s important that people be held accountable for what happened there.”
Said Fahey, the Carver County attorney, “It’s embarrassing. Again, because a lot of St. John’s grads aren’t afraid to tell people `Yeah, I went to St. John’s.’ And in the past, it’s always been very positive.”
Shane Hoefer, a political science major and editor of the student paper, said: “I didn’t really know how to feel at first, and to some extent, I still don’t.” He graduated earlier this month. “I’m proud of being a Johnnie. And I consider some of the monks to be very close friends. If I have kids someday, I’ll send them to St. John’s if they want to go there.”
Bassett said it’s important for people to separate the monks under scrutiny from the rest of the institution.
“You just have a half-dozen goofballs up there,” he said. “The place is and remains and will be a great place for a kid to go to school.
“People are probably going to be afraid, but at the same time, I don’t think something like this is ever going to happen again. . . . Now that it’s happened, and the fact it’s coming out in the open may prevent it from happening again.”
In recent weeks, St. John’s officials have sent letters to current students and parents and those planning to enroll this coming fall to keep them abreast of developments.
An abbey statement dated May 12 to university students and their parents said that the monk under investigation for the unsolved double homicide had passed a lie detector test when questioned in 1994. It also stated that the monk was serving in a monastery in the Bahamas in October 1989, when Wetterling was abducted near his home in St. Joseph.
Several weeks ago, Klassen also met with university and prep-school students to discuss the issues. And later this summer, he or a spokesman will address the issue for incoming students and their parents at orientation.
“This is not the result of a high-powered PR effort,” Klassen said. “This was just paying attention to the data and returning the phone calls and paying attention to what is going on.”
Wright, who once defended priest sexual-abuse cases for an archdiocese on the West Coast, said he is encouraged by Klassen’s work in recent weeks and thinks St. John’s “is on the right track” in dealing with the issue.
Nevertheless, he said, he wants to see more.
Wright said he knew nothing of the abuse of some of his classmates in the early 1980s until the story first surfaced a decade later. When it did, he said, he assumed that the abbey removed the monks involved from the Collegeville campus.
“Part of my problem is, I’ve handled these cases, and I’ve seen how the church in other areas has dealt with these in some ways I consider better than what the abbey has done,” he said. “Priests have been defrocked or have resigned. The bottom line for me is, in other places, the church has removed the offender from any possibility of contact.
“Their problem is, they need to recognize this and deal with it in a way that Tylenol dealt with tampered products. They need to say `That’s over, it’ll never happen again,’ and take every step to make sure that it won’t happen again.”
– Richard Meryhew is at email@example.com.
St. John’s community wonders about future
Trust, enrollment and donations in doubt amid sex-abuse scandal involving monks;
Richard Meryhew; Staff Writer
Minneapolis Star Tribune 05-26-2002