Abbey Information, Contact, and Official Statements

 

Questions and Answers Regarding Saint John’s Abbey’s Response to Allegations of Sexual Abuse

 4 May 2015

 The abuse committed by members of our monastic community has inflicted a terrible tragedy on innocent victims. The following questions-and-answers provide background on actions the Abbey has taken to deal directly and transparently with allegations of child sexual abuse and to prevent future abuses.

Q.        Why has it taken so long for Saint John’s Abbey to release the name of offenders?

A.         Saint John’s Abbey long has acknowledged the abuse by some members of the monastery and voluntarily released the names of current and former monks who likely have offended against minors. Disclosure began in 2002. In 2011, St. John’s Abbey publicly released a list of monks against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation or misconduct had been brought. And, in 2013, the Abbey publicly released a list of 18 monks who likely have offended against minors.

 

Q.        Why are there inconsistencies in the lists, with some names on one list but not on the other or some names of monks excluded altogether?

A.         There are no inconsistencies; rather, there are different lists. The 2013 list identifies 18 monks who likely have offended against minors. It is as complete as can be, recognizing that the allegations involve incidents that are decades old and, in some cases, involve monks who are deceased, cognitively impaired or, in two cases, men who have been dispensed from their religious vows and no longer are connected to the Abbey.  All allegations brought forward to the Abbey are investigated. Some allegations involve activity between adults and are not relevant to the 2013 list, which is a disclosure of monks who likely have offended against minors. Some allegations have been found, after investigations, to be not credible or are not yet resolved.  To the best of our knowledge, the 2013 list is a complete and accurate record of all monks who likely have offended against minors.

 

Q.        Why are there so many cases of abuse involving monks?

A.         One case is too many, and we deeply regret the pain that has been inflicted on victims and their families. It is important to distinguish new claims from new incidents. In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Child Victims Act. This law created a three-year waiver of the statute of limitations for abuse claims and is the catalyst for much of the recent litigation. Claims against some of those named on the 2013 list, for example, were not brought to the Abbey’s attention until decades after the accused monk’s death. 

In fact, all the credible allegations of misconduct against minors involve incidents that occurred more than two decades ago. Saint John’s Abbey has been in the vanguard of taking positive, proactive and effective steps to protect minors. The actions taken include the following: 

  • In 1989, Saint John’s Abbey implemented a “Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Policy” that set forth our commitment to eliminating sexual abuse of minors.
  • The Abbey created an External Review Board in 2003. The seven-member panel includes mental health professionals with expertise in the treatment of sexual abuse survivors and child protection, attorneys, and current and former members of law enforcement. In addition, the Board’s members include a survivor of sexual abuse. The Board is charged with evaluating allegations of sexual abuse against members of the Abbey and making recommendations for action to the Abbot, as well as conducting annual reviews of individual monks’ safety plans.
  • Saint John’s has enhanced the screening of those wishing to enter the monastery. Intense assessments are part of a more rigorous process of identifying appropriate candidates. Education – including what it means to live a good, chaste and celibate life – continues during and after monastic formation. For example, just last year the entire monastic community completed a regularly-scheduled workshop updating their awareness of boundary issues and warning signals.
     

These and other actions by Saint John’s Abbey have been effective in preventing new offenses involving minors. While the Abbey continues to deal forthrightly with any allegation of abuse of a minor, all the alleged incidents which are being discussed today occurred well in the past.

 

Q.        Some critics claim that there is a “cover-up” and that Saint John’s Abbey has not released the names of all offending monks. Is this true?

A.         Saint John’s Abbey takes all allegations of misconduct by monks seriously. As noted, the Abbey has been proactive not only in releasing the names of those who likely have offended, but in investigating credible allegations. Some critics create confusion by including the names of monks who may have been sexually involved with adults. While these incidents, if true, are of concern to the Abbey for religious reasons, they do not involve minors and are not criminal acts. 

In other instances, some monks continue to be subjected to accusations of abuse even after investigations and the evidence have refuted the allegations. It is noteworthy that these allegations are not brought in courts of law, but in courts of public opinion. 

Saint John’s acknowledges the important role of the media in giving a voice to those who have been hurt. Whenever possible, Saint John’s has tried to cooperate with reporters. Saint John’s has dealt forthrightly and candidly with each of these stories. Most reporters have acted responsibly. They have been willing to look objectively at the factual evidence we have presented and to not pursue stories rooted in innuendo rather than truth.

The Abbey has been both transparent and thorough in confronting credible allegations. We have accepted full responsibility for the abuses that have been committed and have made sincere and heartfelt apologies directly to victims and their families and through the media and in other public forums.

We also have an obligation to be respectful of those who are innocent, but are caught up in an environment in which too often unsubstantiated allegations are in the news. Those who have been faithful to their vows and their values should not have to live under clouds of doubt because of the actions of others. Nor should unsubstantiated criticism and claims be taken at face value. It does not lessen our commitment to the truth and full disclosure to question the motivation of some.

 

Q.        Why haven’t those who are guilty of offending against minors been charged with criminal offenses?

Saint John’s Abbey has cooperated fully when those alleged to have abused have been investigated or charged by law enforcement agencies. Whether a person is charged with a crime and subject to criminal proceedings is not up to the Abbey. Rather, those decisions have been made by public safety officials and prosecutors. Saint John’s Abbey certainly does report to law enforcement officials, as required by Minnesota law, any neglect and any physical or sexual abuse of children that it has knowledge or reason to believe may have occurred.

 

Q.        Why do those against whom there are credible allegations get to live freely on campus?

A.         Simply put, they don’t. Those against whom there are credible allegations live under restrictive safety plans. Their actions are limited and they are supervised. The External Review Board meets on a regular basis to review the safety plans imposed on members of the monastery. Neither the External Review Board nor the safety plans insulate monks from legal action.

 

Q.        Among the most persistent critics of the way Saint John’s Abbey has handled abuse issues are two former members of the monastery, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall. Should their perspectives be given significant weight?

A.         Neither man has had any involvement or direct knowledge of the Abbey for nearly two decades. Their criticism of the Abbey seems to be driven by personal agendas and is characterized by misstatements of the facts and exaggerations of their own positions and expertise. They are entitled to their opinions. However, the media and others should recognize their criticism as only opinions and consider that both have a financial stake in their comments.

  

Statement: Seven Lawsuits Filed in Stearns County, 25 July 2016

On Wednesday, July 20, Saint John’s Abbey filed seven lawsuits with Stearns County Court in Saint Cloud. These suits were served against Saint John’s by plaintiffs’ attorneys in the final weeks of the window created by the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which closed May 25. However, the lawsuits were not filed in court at that time. Although it is usually plaintiffs who file cases in court, Saint John’s is itself filing these claims because of various legal issues that can only be resolved once the suit is actually filed and the court process begins. These are not lawsuits brought by Saint John’s, nor are they new claims. Instead, they are lawsuits served on Saint John’s this past Spring that are being filed with the court in order to move various legal processes along.

One of the complaints, brought by “Doe 304,” alleges “unpermitted sexual contact with Plaintiff” in 1993, when the plaintiff was a minor, and names then-Br. Doug Mullin, OSB, as the offender. Fr. Mullin was the Prep School Dean of Students at that time. Fr. Mullin adamantly denies the allegation. Saint John’s Abbey has full confidence in Fr. Mullin’s denial and, by filing the complaint in court—at Fr. Mullin’s request—is seeking to restore his good name.

Fr. Mullin has served with distinction in several leadership roles for Saint John’s Prep School and Saint John’s University. Among his accomplishments as Dean of Students at the Prep School were helping to implement policies to assure a safe campus environment in the early 1990’s. As Vice President for Student Development at Saint John’s University, he has been instrumental in developing and implementing policies and programs to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment under federal Title IX.

Fr. Mullin has voluntarily stepped back temporarily from public priestly ministry and also from his longtime role as Faculty Resident in the residence halls at the University. Saint John’s University has full confidence in Fr. Doug Mullin’s innocence and expects him to be completely vindicated in this matter. Fr. Mullin continues in his Vice-Presidential role with Saint John's University, as would any other employee facing an unproven allegation of wrongdoing.

 

Response to New Lawsuits Filed by Anderson and Associates, April 28, 2016

The allegations against the Rev. Timothy Backous, OSB, are without merit and false. Saint John’s Abbey and Fr. Backous will fully and aggressively defend against the false claims. 

Saint John's Abbey also objects to the calculated misrepresentation of its strong record of dealing forthrightly with sexual abuse claims. Allegations are examined by independent investigators and submitted for review to an external review board. This process has been effective: monks who had offended have been held accountable and there has been no credible incident of sexual abuse of a minor by a monk of Saint John’s in well over a quarter-century.

 

Response to Press Conference held by Jeff Anderson & Associates, 12 April 2016

Saint John’s Abbey denies the allegations set forth by the two Plaintiffs in today’s press conference and fully intends to defend both cases.

Further, in the press conference, Mr. Anderson misstated the efforts to interview Mr. Belrose as part of the independent investigation. Mr. Belrose was contacted multiple times and invited to provide a statement or participate in an interview. He refused without offering a reason or details of his allegation.

 

Allegations against the Rev. Thomas Andert, OSB, are found to be unsubstantiated;  February 4, 2016

Allegations of sexual abuse brought last year against the Rev. Thomas Andert, OSB, have been found to be unsubstantiated. The conclusion comes at the end of a six-month-long, comprehensive investigation into the claims.

Fr. Andert is a monk of Saint John’s Abbey. At the time the allegations were brought forward last year, Abbot John Klassen, OSB, following abbey policy, asked Fr. Andert to step back from public ministry and from his work as prior of the abbey until an investigation was completed. Fr. Andert willingly agreed to step back from public ministry and from his position as prior. 

The allegations were made in July by a former student of Saint John’s Preparatory (SJP). The former student claimed he was abused by Fr. Andert while attending the school in 1979-80.

In response to the allegations, Abbot Klassen retained independent, expert counsel to investigate. The investigator’s inquiry included a complete review of the contemporary records and documents. He also obtained testimony from the claimant’s former classmates and SJP faculty, staff and residence hall prefects as well as other campus officials at the time the incidents are alleged to have occurred.

The investigation did not find any support for the claimant’s allegations that he was sexually abused by Fr. Andert.

The investigator’s findings and the claimant’s allegations were submitted to the Saint John’s Abbey External Review Board (ERB). After careful review and extensive discussion, the ERB recommended that the claimant’s allegations were not substantiated by the facts.

Abbot Klassen reviewed the evidence and concurred with the ERB’s recommendation that the allegations were not supported by evidence.

Fr. Andert has been fully restored to ministry by the abbot. After the ERB made its findings, Fr. Andert, who was at the end of his term as the abbey’s prior, voluntarily chose to resign from this position in order to move forward. The abbot accepted his resignation, and granted Fr. Andert a sabbatical, which he has decided to spend at Saint John’s.

Allegations were also brought by the same claimant against Rev. Allen Tarlton, OSB, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey. These allegations were also unsubstantiated. Fr. Tarlton passed away in January.

 

A Conversation with Abbot John Klassen Regarding the Transparency Initiative

Read an interview with Abbot John Klassen, OSB, on the importance of Saint John’s Abbey’s release of files and their role in the abbey's decades-long journey to help the healing of survivors, to hold offending monks accountable and to prevent abuse. The interview is here.


Statement regarding lawsuit related to Othmar Hohmann, January 13, 2016

The entire community of Saint John’s Abbey grieves the pain and suffering of those who have been harmed by abuse and those whose lives have been diminished by the pain they have suffered. We are committed to doing all we can to bring healing and peace to the survivors. We look forward to hearing this survivor’s story and to continuing our initiatives to hold offending monks accountable.

Fulfilling our commitment to survivors includes our decision last year to voluntarily release comprehensive work, medical and personal files of the monks who are likely to have offended. The excerpts from the files of Fr. Othmar Hohmann, OSB, released at today’s news conference are part of the thorough personal and work histories the abbey voluntarily gave to the law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates in July 2015.

The files are wide in their scope, providing comprehensive disclosure of personal and work information regarding these monks. However, they are not likely to include details of specific incidents that were not reported to the abbey, law enforcement agencies or others.

Today’s allegations involving Othmar Hohmann are a case in point. This lawsuit is the first time the claimant's allegations have been communicated to us.  The abbey still has not been provided any substantive information about the abuse alleged to have occurred a half century or more ago. Complicating the challenge is that Othmar Hohmann has been dead for 35 years.

Learning of this new lawsuit recommits us to the full and complete public release of the files of all 18 monks who are likely to have offended. We strongly hope that the healing of survivors will be supported with the full release of the files and we are taking steps to achieve that goal.


Statement regarding MPR News Story, 18 December 2015

Saint John’s Abbey extends its deepest sympathies to the Spanier family and holds them in our prayers as they approach the first anniversary of the death of their son Ben.

Unfortunately, the Spaniers have come to believe a story based on selective reading of circumstantial evidence, but one that is not supported by the body of documented evidence. While we understand the grief of a family as they search to explain the loss of their son, we are extremely disappointed that Minnesota Public Radio chose to ignore the volume of evidence and documents sent to the reporter that clearly rebut the thesis of the story being broadcast.

Most significantly, the Spaniers were accorded every opportunity to meet with Abbot Timothy Kelly in the 1990s and discuss their allegations. When asked directly by Abbot Kelly whether there was concern of sexual abuse, Ben Spanier and his parents stated unequivocally that no inappropriate sexual behavior was involved. In fact, documented evidence supports that Father Andert was a mentor to Ben and a personal friend to Ben’s family. That was the extent of the association.

As recently as this fall, Abbot John Klassen reached out to the Spaniers to invite them to share their concerns. Both parties agreed that it would be best to talk about the concerns face-to-face, but unfortunately, the right opportunity did not present itself.

The MPR story seems to be based on the request that Saint John’s Abbey “open up to the community about the concerns and allegations involving Andert and other priests,” as the story concludes.

Yet, that is exactly what the Abbey has done for the past 15 years or more and it is what MPR chose to ignore in its reporting. The facts are clear:

  • On multiple occasions, we have published lists of monks against whom there are credible allegations of sexual abuse involving minors. Most recently, we provided the Twin Cities law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates with the complete files of monks against whom there are credible allegations and are cooperating in their complete disclosure, a process that already has started.
  • There is no evidence—and a specific denial from the alleged victim, Ben Spanier—that Father Andert’s interaction with Ben was sexually abusive in any way. As noted above, Father Andert had a mentoring relationship with Ben and that association ended when Ben left school. There was no further contact beyond an incidental meeting at a funeral in the more than 20 years after Ben left the school.
  • Most important, there have been no incidents of sexual abuse of a minor involving a monk of Saint John’s in more than 20 years. This is the result of specific and aggressive actions, including the following:
    • We have implemented a rigorous process to address and investigate allegations of abuse, retaining independent investigators to examine claims and make reports to an external board for review.  In addition, Saint John’s has cooperated fully with investigations and processes of law enforcement.
    • Those monks who have offended live under restrictive safety plans. Their actions are limited and they are supervised.
    • Saint John’s has enhanced the screening of men seeking to enter the monastery. Thorough assessments are part of a rigorous process of identifying appropriate candidates. Today, Saint John’s Abbey is a community of monks, including many young men, who live lives of service and leadership, creating a future for the monastery as bright as it ever has been.

All of this information was made available in detail and substantiated with documents several months ago. For all of the important reporting Madeleine Baran has done on clergy abuse, this is an instance where she and MPR have failed their audience and harmed the reputation of the Abbey and everyone associated with Saint John’s. MPR owes an apology for this story.

 

Response to Star Tribune article – 24 November 2015

By Abbot John Klassen, OSB

Following the press conference at attorney Jeff Anderson’s office on November 24, 2015, Abbot John Klassen submitted the following opinion article to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis in order to clarify a number of misleading or inaccurate statements made during the press conference, and to shed light on the steps Saint John’s Abbey has taken to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all students, staff, and guests on our campus.  The Star Tribune rejected the article for publication.  We put it forth on our own initiative, therefore, in order that the public may have access to information Mr. Anderson and the news media may fail to understand or share.

In the more than 150 years since the founding of Saint John’s Abbey, nearly a thousand monks have devoted their lives to compassionate service, dedicating their talents to pursuits ranging from teaching to pastoral ministry to the preservation of culture in hostile areas of today's war-torn Middle East.

Since 2000, I have had the privilege of serving as abbot of Saint John’s. A sad but vital part of my role has been to hold accountable monks who committed abuse against minors and to assure that future misconduct is prevented. Meeting with survivors and hearing their stories has been a good thing for all concerned.  We in the monastic community grieve the pain and suffering of those who have been harmed, whose lives have been diminished by the pain they suffered.

In some instances, however, facts about these wrongdoings have given way to misleading exaggeration. A case in point is the recent press conference regarding the release of the files of five monks. These are not “secret files,” as the law firm suggested at its press conference, but personal letters, medical records, legal documents, and other papers that document every aspect of these monks’ lives. State and Federal Law actually restrict the release of educational and medical records, but these and the files still to be released were given voluntarily by the Abbey and the monks in question in the hope that disclosure would benefit survivors and further transparency. Instead, the information was presented in a sensationalized manner, painting an unfair and distorted picture of the Abbey.

Here are the facts: First, and most importantly, no incident of sexual abuse of a minor by a monk of Saint John’s has occurred in more than two decades. Statements surrounding the release of the files cleverly cited recent dates of unrelated events, giving the impression that abuse is an ongoing occurrence at the Abbey. It is not. I say this not to diminish past incidents or to evade accountability. Rather, I want to emphasize that since the allegations of abuse first came to light, Saint John’s Abbey has taken specific and effective actions to halt and prevent abuse. We have created a safe environment, one that has stood the test of time.

Second, in one case a monk disregarded his vow of celibate chastity and had consensual sex with adults and paid prostitutes on foreign trips. His actions came to light in the course of a therapeutic assessment twenty years after he had been removed from any work involving students. The documents show that the Abbey imposed increasing restrictions on him as past actions came to light. For the past several years this monk has lived away from Saint John’s in a secure facility.

Still, the press conference portrayed this monk as a current threat to students at Saint John’s. That approach left the impression that most or all his transgressions were abusive, involved minors, and that the Abbey covered up his behavior. None of that is true.

Third, the press conference included an allegation that the Abbey paid “hush money” as part of a deal with a monk to leave the monastery. Incredibly, the media made no effort to confirm this absurd claim, reporting it as fact. It is fiction. Because monks do not receive a salary or accrue benefits while they are members of the monastery, monks who leave the order are routinely provided some funds in lieu of retirement and health care benefits to help them during the time of transition. The payment wasn’t “hush money,” but a normal and equitable practice.

The facts support a very different portrait of Saint John’s than the false one painted by the law firm:

  • We have implemented a rigorous process to address and investigate allegations of abuse, retaining independent investigators to examine claims and make reports to an external board for review.  In addition, Saint John’s has cooperated fully with investigations and processes of law enforcement.
  • Those monks who have offended live under restrictive safety plans. Their actions are limited and they are supervised.
  • Saint John’s has enhanced the screening of men seeking to enter the monastery. Thorough assessments are part of a rigorous process of identifying appropriate candidates. Today, Saint John’s Abbey is a community of monks, including many young men, who live lives of service and leadership, creating a future for the monastery as bright as it ever has been.

It is essential that we do all we can to listen and help survivors heal, to hold accountable those who have abused minors and to be proactive in preventing new incidents. Our efforts have created a safe environment at Saint John’s. That is a truthful statement that stands up to scrutiny.
____________________

(Abbot John Klassen, OSB, became a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey in 1972 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1977. He was elected the 10th abbot of Saint John’s in 2000.)

 

Questions and Answers regarding release of files by Attorney Jeff Anderson, November 25, 2015

Q: Why are the files of these monks being released now?

A: The Abbey voluntarily gave the files to the law firm of Jeff Anderson and Associates some time ago.  Anderson and Associates are releasing these materials now in batches—this is the first. The materials to be published include the monks’ work histories, the accusations made against them and personal correspondence. The monks whose files are being released all have been publicly identified by Saint John’s Abbey years ago.

 

Q: Does the release of files reflect new allegations against the monks?

A: No. The allegations involve incidents that occurred 20-50 years ago. Minnesota media have reported that Anderson is releasing the files now to encourage those who feel they may have claims against the monks to come forward before the May 2016 expiration of the Minnesota Child Victims Act, the legislation that suspended the statute of limitations for such cases.

 

Q: Mr. Anderson alleged that some monks may have been involved in hundreds of incidents. If true, how did all this occur without the Abbey taking action?

A: Every instance of abuse is a tragedy. Every allegation the Abbey received involving abuse of a minor was dealt with thoughtfully, with respect for the victims and with the intention of holding abusers accountable. Mr. Anderson’s press conference statements and the follow-up media coverage make it easy for the public to infer that there were hundreds of cases involving minors, that some cases of abuse are recent and that the Abbey willfully overlooked these actions. None of that is true. Here are the facts:

  • First, the Abbey received a single allegation of abuse of a minor involving Father Finian McDonald. The allegation received prompt attention and was a major factor for the increasing restrictions placed on Father McDonald. Beyond that, though, it is clear that Father McDonald had a secret life involving illicit behavior during his travels. This secret life only came to light because of the Abbey’s pursuit of the truth and its determination to get Father McDonald into further treatment. The Abbey was not covering up for Father McDonald, it was responsible for revealing to Mr. Anderson and others the extent of his actions.
  • Second, Mr. Anderson implies that every student who accompanied Father Richard Eckroth to his lake cabin was the victim of abuse. Again, that claim is not supported by the facts, including the accounts of the vast majority of those who were at the cabin with Father Eckroth. Every case of abuse is a tragedy and this is not to minimize what those who claimed to have been victimized experienced. But it also is unfair to stigmatize everyone who was with Father Eckroth as Mr. Anderson’s implications do.
  • Third, Mr. Anderson in his press conference seemed to intentionally use recent dates and extreme numbers of incidents to suggest that abuse of minors is current, that the Abbey was negligent in its efforts to uncover the facts and that vulnerable people, including children, remained vulnerable to those against whom there were credible allegations of abuse. None of that is true. As the news media reported, Mr. Anderson’s goal in his press conference was to encourage people who want to file a claim to come forward before the May 2016 expiration of the extended statute of limitations. There is no question that some monks' actions were inexcusable, but some of Mr. Anderson's claims simply don't stand up to scrutiny.

 

Q: Mr. Anderson said the Abbey paid "hush" money in return for some monks’ agreement to leave the Abbey. Is this true?

A: This claim is outrageous. Because monks do not receive a salary or accrue benefits while they are members of the Abbey, monks who leave the order for any reason are provided some funds in lieu of any retirement benefits, financial support, health care benefits and other compensation.

 

Q. Why weren’t these monks criminally prosecuted at the time they allegedly committed the violations?

A: Monks who are accused of illegal behavior are subject to criminal investigation and prosecution under state and federal laws, exactly the same as everyone else is.  Monks do not get any special protection or immunity from criminal charges or jail sentences. 

  • When the Abbey receives a report of any suspected abuse of a child, we report it to law enforcement authorities as required by law.  Law enforcement makes the decision as to what to investigate and the State decides what to prosecute.
  • None of the accused monks have ever been found guilty of criminal sexual abuse.
  • Criminal charges were brought against one of the former monks whose file is being released today, Francis Hoefgen.  He was investigated by law enforcement in Dakota County related to an allegation of sexual abuse.  Hoefgen denied the allegation and during a full criminal trial last spring, the jury found him “not guilty” on all charges. 

 

Q: Do the files show any cover-up by the Abbey?

A: No. The files reflect the Abbey’s on-going efforts to deal directly with the issues and the monks involved and that the Abbey did not try to cover up allegations. Saint John’s Abbey has been and is proactive in dealing with problems of child sexual abuse, and the Abbey is voluntarily sharing these documents (with the permission of the accused monks) out of a sincere desire to achieve transparency and in furtherance of healing for victims.

 

Q: Will other files be released?

A: Yes. This is just the first batch. Anderson's law firm has files of all monks against whom there have been credible allegations of misconduct involving minors and it is likely that some or all will be released in the coming weeks or months prior to the expiration of the Child Victims Act. While the Anderson law firm controls the timing of the release, the Abbey has urged that all information on the monks be released simultaneously.

 

Statement on Release of Files, November 22, 2015

The law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates, in cooperation of Saint John’s Abbey, is releasing portions of the personnel files of monks against whom there have been credible allegations of misconduct involving minors. We expect the first batch of files to be published on Jeff Anderson & Associates’ website on Tuesday, November 24, 2015.

The Abbey provided Anderson’s office with complete personnel files. Anderson’s office has reviewed the files and made decisions on what information to publish. The materials to be published include the monks’ work histories, the accusations made against them and personal correspondence.

The files provided include those of monks currently living on the Saint John’s campus under safety plans. Their actions are limited and they are closely supervised. Files also include nine monks who are deceased and two men who have left Saint John’s and the Benedictine order. The allegations against these men involve incidents that occurred more than two decades ago; some of the incidents are 30 or 40 years old.

There are documents in each file which may be quoted and framed in a lurid context. But the huge majority of the documents in each of these files acknowledges the very real failures of some monks while showing each of the accused monks as a fallible, relatable person. The files also show that the Abbey did not try to cover up allegations and did a reasonable job of managing the monk and the problem. St. John’s Abbey has been and is proactive in dealing with problems of child sexual abuse, and the Abbey is voluntarily sharing these documents (with the permission of the accused monks) out of a sincere desire to achieve transparency and in furtherance of healing for victims.

Saint John’s Abbey began publicly disclosing the names of those against whom there were credible allegations of misconduct against minors in 2002 and voluntarily released additional names periodically as new claims were presented and evaluated.

Anderson's law firm has files of all monks against whom there have been credible allegations of misconduct involving minors and it is likely that some or all will be released in the coming weeks or months as Minnesota approaches the May 2016 expiration of legislation that suspended the statute of limitations for such cases.

“The Abbey has striven to be both transparent and thorough in confronting credible allegations. The Abbey has accepted full responsibility for abuses that have been committed and has made sincere and heartfelt apologies directly to victims and their families as well as through the media and in other public forums,” said Abbot John Klassen, OSB. “We are hopeful that, with this disclosure, we can help survivors find peace and resolution.”

 

Allegations Against the Rev. Timothy Backous, OSB, are Found to be Unsubstantiated; November 5, 2015

Allegations of sexual abuse brought last year against the Rev. Timothy Backous, OSB, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, have been found to be unsubstantiated. This conclusion comes at the end of a year-long, comprehensive investigation into the allegations.

In June 2014, the parents of a former Saint John’s Boys’ Choir member came forward to renew allegations that their son was sexually abused by Father Backous in 1990 during a European tour of the Saint John’s Boys’ Choir. The allegation had been investigated by the abbey upon the parents’ initial report in 1991 and at that time was found to be unsubstantiated. Although no new information accompanied the renewed allegation, upon receiving it the abbey followed its policy and retained an independent, third-party investigator to gather all relevant information.

The investigator conducted a complete review of the contemporary records and documents and interviewed witnesses. Despite numerous efforts, the alleged victim refused to cooperate with the investigation and would not provide a firsthand account of the allegation. The investigator did obtain testimony from eight of the nine tour chaperones and seven former choir members who were on the tour. Thetestimony of all the witnesses was consistent. None had any recollections of inappropriate behavior involving Father Backous and the person making the allegation.

In November 2014, during the investigation into the first allegation, the claimant retained an attorney and alleged for the first time a separate incident of abuse involving Father Backous. The alleged victim, accompanied by his attorney, provided an interview to attorneys for Saint John’s Abbey and Father Backous. The investigation was subsequently expanded to include the new allegation and interviews were conducted with all relevant parties. Again no witnesses corroborated the allegation and key witnesses contradicted substantive claims in the allegation.

Both the investigator’s findings and the alleged victim’s sworn statement were submitted to the Saint John’s Abbey External Review Board (ERB). After careful review and discussion, the ERB recommended that neither allegation made by the claimant was substantiated by the facts. Abbot John Klassen, OSB, reviewed the evidence and concurred with the ERB’s recommendation that the allegations were not supported by evidence.

Saint John’s Abbey created the External Review Board in 2003 and charged it with formally reviewing and examining the investigative reports from allegations of misconduct. The board provides a forum for allegations of misconduct to be reviewed thoroughly with respect for those who may have been harmed.

Father Backous voluntarily stepped back from ministry when the allegations were brought forward in June 2014 to facilitate the investigation and consultation with the External Review Board. He will determine his future role in consultation with Abbot Klassen.

 

Settlement Announced April 27, 2015

In order to achieve some measure of reconciliation, Saint John’s Abbey has reached a settlement in a lawsuit involving an allegation against a monk of the community and the Abbey. Out of respect for the privacy of the parties involved and the agreement we have made, we have no further comment on this settlement. 

In 1989, Saint John’s Abbey implemented a Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Policy that set forth our commitment to zero-tolerance for sexual abuse of minors and the immediate removal from ministry of any monk facing established allegations of abuse. These guidelines and protocols have been revised and strengthened many times since then.

Since 2000, when Abbot John Klassen, O.S.B., was elected as the leader of Saint John’s, he has continued the Abbey's commitment to protection of children.  In June 2002, he announced that the Abbey would implement the directives of the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which is the official policy that governed the Catholic Church and its dioceses in the United States. 

At the same time, Saint John's, working with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the national organization whose members are the leaders of all male religious orders in the United States, contracted with Praesidium Religious Services, Inc., a Texas company specializing in the safety of children.  Praesidium developed the educational programs for the prevention of sexual abuse and established a set of national standards for preventing and for responding to allegations of sexual abuse.  This independent company also created a system of accreditation for each religious organization that included documentation of the education of members and an onsite visit of the religious community.  Saint John's Abbey completed Praesidium's accreditation in 2008 and we have maintained our accreditation since that time.

Saint John’s will continue to address the wrongs that were done in the past, and will continue to pray for all survivors of sexual abuse, including all involved in matter mentioned above. 

We, too, will be ever vigilant in our efforts to safeguard minors and all entrusted to our care.

 

Statement to Clarify Misstatements Made During Anderson News Conference, 9-18-14

After reviewing the video of Jeff Anderson's 9/18/2014 news conference and receiving calls from reporters who had been confused by this conference, Saint John's Abbey is providing the following clarifications:

Mr. Jeff Anderson, in his news conference today, misstates several critical facts. At best, he is careless in his speech, confusing people and misattributing statements.
Mr. Anderson misattributes a quote to Father Allen Tarlton, claiming he says in a deposition, "I'm free to go wherever I need to go when I want to go." This statement was made, in a video, by Fr. James Thoennes of the Diocese of Saint Cloud and has nothing to do with Fr. Tarlton or Saint John's. Father Tarlton was removed from his duties more than two decades ago. He lives in a restricted environment, under close supervision and has no unsupervised contact with the students of Saint John's Prep
or Saint John's University. Mr. Anderson's statement is false and has caused confusion for many.

As noted above, Father Thoennes is a priest of the Diocese of Saint Cloud. Father Thoennes is not a member of Saint John's Abbey and never has been. We do not have first-hand knowledge of the situation regarding Father Thoennes, nor do we have any comment about it.

Saint John's Abbey has complied with legal and ethical obligations to survivors and their families. The Abbey has made full disclosure of the names of all monks against whom credible allegations have been made. These disclosures include public statements to the media and to parishes in which the accused monks had served. On two occasions, the Abbey released comprehensive lists. In 2011, the names of 18 monks against whom "credible allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation or misconduct (were) brought..." In 2013, a second list of monks "who likely have offended against minors" was released voluntarily to the public.

 

Response to Lawsuits Filed September 18, 2014

 Saint John’s Abbey disputes the claims presented in the three lawsuits announced today. One lawsuit is an attempt to create new claims from incidents that the Abbey resolved with claimants a dozen or more years ago.  The other lawsuits echo doubtful allegations dating back to the 1970s.  The Abbey has not had any opportunity to investigate or even confer with these new claimants.

It is especially dismaying that today’s news conference was promoted with the claim that these incidents are evidence of a “clear and present danger.” That claim is absurd and represents fear-mongering at its worst. One of the priests involved has been deceased since 2004; the second suffers from severe dementia and is confined to the Abbey’s supervised nursing care facility.

The Abbey has been conscientious and transparent in voluntarily disclosing the names of monks who may have offended, including previous disclosure of the names of the two priests cited in today’s lawsuits. The Abbey has been diligent and proactive in assuring that those against whom there are credible allegations are placed under strictly reviewed safety plans that prevent further misconduct. Since allegations of inappropriate actions by some of our monks were first raised, the Abbey has taken specific actions to prevent additional incidents.  Jeff Anderson is well aware of the Abbey’s efforts and that they have been effective. There is no substantiated incident of abuse of a minor by a member of Saint John’s Abbey in more than two decades. 

The Abbey continues to deal forthrightly with allegations of abuse of minors. With compassion for victims and a real commitment to right wrongs, we have striven to create safe environments for the entire Saint John’s community, especially our schools, and for the parishes in which members of the Abbey serve.

 

Update from Abbot John Klassen, OSB

 Recent news stories about clergy misconduct, and especially those involving monks from Saint John's Abbey, have prompted questions and concerns from many of the people who care most deeply about Saint John's Abbey, Saint John's Prep and Saint John's University. They have shared with me their disappointment and frustration. In particular, many have questioned whether our responses to allegations of abuse by members of our community have fallen short of what is expected of the Abbey. One alumnus put it directly in a recent letter: "I am asking where is the public voice of Saint John's as it leads with Benedictine, Christian values...?"

That's a fair question and one that has prompted some personal reflections that I want to share.

The cases of sexual abuse involving children have been heartbreaking. I grieve for the victims of abuse and their families. They have been betrayed by the clergy they trusted. The pain they have had to endure is unimaginable.

Since the first claims of abuse surfaced nearly three decades ago, we have worked hard to create processes in which allegations of misconduct are reviewed thoroughly and with respect for those who may have been harmed.  The External Review Board – a panel that includes a victim, those who work with victims, and other experts – meets on a regular basis to evaluate claims of potential abuse and to review the safety plans for members of the monastery who likely have offended against minors.

We have taken other steps, including a voluntary release of the names of monks who likely have offended against minors, had numerous frank conversations with victims, their representatives, and the news media.

Still, every time an allegation or controversy surfaces in a news story, I know we are bound to disappoint some of our friends who believe we respond too timidly and others who see our responses as incomplete and even disingenuous.

All of this is front of mind these days as the news media regurgitate two-decade-old claims against Fr. Timothy Backous.  Many of you, like me, have known and respected Fr. Timo for years. I have worked side-by-side with him, and observed his many, many interactions with children and young people.  When the media contacted us, I reviewed the reports from nearly 25 years ago when the issue first was raised. The allegations were not substantiated and we found no cause to place any restrictions on Father Tim.

Unfortunately and unfairly, the news media published the allegations with no corroborating witnesses, evidence or documentation. News stories accepted the untrue claim that restrictions were placed on Fr. Backous. All of this has come at a great personal cost to Fr. Backous. We will continue to do all we can to clear his name and help him regain his reputation.

These news stories about Fr. Timo also underscore some of the realities we confront with almost every issue that comes forward.

First, we rarely have more than a couple of hours between the time we first are called for a comment by the news media and the deadline reporters impose on us. In these few hours, we must review old records or, in some cases, make judgments about claims that are presented for the first time and that are coming from reporters, not those directly involved. Whenever an allegation comes forward, we are committed to pursuing the truth while being respectful of the rights and the reputations of those against whom these allegations have been lodged.

On some occasions, we simply don't have all the facts at hand. We do our best, but almost all of the media stories in recent years have dealt with issues that are decades old. Often, we are confronted with questions from reporters who have spent days or even weeks collecting information from those who believe they have been harmed, their attorneys, and others. We are questioned – and given little time to respond – only after a narrative has already been created.

We have to walk a very fine line in these stories. It is our commitment to be respectful of those who believe they have been victims of abuse and, at the same time, to protect the legal rights of those who may be wrongly accused. There are times when we wish we could be even more proactive in laying out what we know to be the facts of a case, but we are constrained by legal realities – those that affect possible victims and members of Saint John's Abbey.

There are occasions when we have been able to refute potential media stories. In one instance, for example, we showed the reporter that a priest alleged to have abused a person wasn't even in the same state as the alleged victim at the time the incident was supposed to have occurred. Had we not been able to uncover this kind of evidence in the short time available, the reputation of an innocent person would have been irreparably damaged.

There are many instances in which the media have uncovered stories from around the country that were important to report. But there also are other cases – including some involving members of Saint John's – where innocence has given way to the rush to publish a "breaking story."

Second, we are often chasing rumors. Spurious and malicious claims pop up on websites or in email chains. We have pursued legal remedies to get information removed and have been successful, but too often by the time we can provide the facts to the people communicating through these sites or to the internet companies that host the sites, the damage has been done. And, quite frankly, the truth simply doesn't matter to some people.

Through all of this, our commitment is to do all we can to be transparent in confronting credible allegations and accepting responsibility when warranted. We also will be respectful of those who are innocent, but are caught up in an environment in which too often allegations – even without substantiation – are news. Those who have been faithful to their vows and their values should not have to live under clouds of doubt because of the actions of others.

I will do my best to keep you posted on these matters as they unfold.

Abbot John Klassen, OSB                                          June 2014

 

Response to Lawsuit – May 19, 2014

Saint John’s Abbey was made aware of these allegations against Fr. Richard Eckroth late last week. Sorting out the truth of allegations against Fr. Eckroth is complicated by his advanced dementia. He has suffered from dementia for well over a decade, and the disease has taken an increasingly serious toll on his health and cognitive abilities. Incidents involving Eckroth are alleged to have occurred more than forty years ago. While there have been credible claims of inappropriate behavior by Eckroth, there has also been conflicting testimony regarding allegations against him.  For many years, he has lived under close monitoring, both because of his disease and as a result of restrictions imposed on him. We will cooperate to seek the truth as we have in the past when allegations have been presented against members of the monastic community. 

Over ten years ago Saint John’s Abbey made public the names of the five monks named today. They were also included in the list of names we released this past December. Saint John’s has complied with all court orders it has received to produce documents.

As a community, Saint John’s holds any form of sexual abuse to be morally reprehensible and a violation of our vow to a celibate and chaste life committed to mutual respect among all persons. Thus, over the past decade, we have developed policies and procedures to respond responsibly and effectively to investigate allegations of abuse, to hold accountable those who have abused, to keep the community safe and to reach out to victims with sincere offers of pastoral counseling. In addition, all members of our community against whom established allegations have been made are covered by safety plans, and we prominently display sexual abuse information on our website. Saint John’s continues to be dedicated to working with survivors of abuse. We are committed to doing everything possible to assure that the mistakes of our past are not repeated.

 

Saint John’s Abbey is Looking to the Future

By Jim Frey

The revelations of abuse against minors are again challenging the faith of many Catholics. Some react with silence, shamed by the disclosures. Others lash out with anger against those who reveal transgressions that have been committed.

We Catholics have a responsibility to do more. Those of us who continue to find meaning in our faith and who believe that the Catholic Church should be a vital and trusted force for good in our society have a larger obligation. Certainly, we need to acknowledge the wrong that was done, support justice for the survivors and accept the sanctions that are imposed fairly on our church and on those who have failed in their responsibilities.

We can and should go beyond those immediate reactions, though. Our faith gives all members special standing to be advocates within the church. We speak of the body of the church, the communion of all the faithful, as an expression of our belief that we the faithful are the church and the church is us. We are united, a single being. The Catholic Catechism tells us, “All members are linked to one another, especially to those who are suffering, to the poor and persecuted.”

Today we must be linked as never before. It is up to us to advocate publicly and within the Church for responsible, aggressive actions to end forever all abuse and to create a new culture of accountability and transparency.

It’s understandable that virtually all of the focus of the news media, the legal system, politicians and others has been on the past. This isn’t a plea to diminish that attention or to minimize the harm done to survivors. Instead, it is a call to affirm responses to the crisis that are proactive and effective. In highlighting these actions – in our public comments and in support for church leaders doing the right thing – perhaps we can inspire others to act boldly.

I would point specifically to proactive and effective response by Saint John’s Abbey. As a graduate of Saint John’s University and a former member and chair of the university’s governing board, I am especially proud of the Abbey’s forward-looking actions.  

There are facts that deserve attention:

  • Saint John’s Abbey created an External Review Board in 2003 to review and examine the formal investigative reports from allegations of misconduct. The board provides a forum for allegations of misconduct to be reviewed thoroughly with respect for those who may have been harmed. The board includes a victim, those who work with victims and others who are experts in the field. The structure and functioning of the board meet the highest standards of integrity and public trust.

  • The External Review Board meets on a regular basis to review the safety plans imposed on members of the monastery who likely have offended against minors. The Safety Plans don’t insulate monks from legal action. The Abbey fully cooperates with legal authorities. Safety plans provide a safeguard that goes beyond legal action. Safety plans remove these monks from situations of uncontrolled contact with minors or other vulnerable people.

  • Saint John’s has enhanced the screening of those wishing to enter the monastery. Intense assessments are part of a more rigorous process of identifying appropriate candidates. Education – including what it means to live a good, chaste and celibate life – continues during and after monastic formation. For example, the entire monastic community just completed a regularly-scheduled workshop updating their awareness of boundary issues and warning signals.

These and other actions by Saint John’s Abbey have been effective. There is no substantiated incident of abuse of a minor by a member of Saint John’s Abbey in more than two decades. While the Abbey continues to deal forthrightly with any allegation of abuse of a minor, all the alleged incidents occurred well in the past.

All of this is worth noting not in order to congratulate or exonerate the Abbey. It goes without saying that protecting our children must always be the first priority. The Catholic Church failed in that obligation, and there is no excuse for the harm done to children and families.

Rather, it is to say that a dynamic Catholic Church is important to all. It sustains the spiritual life of the faithful and it brings hope to the “suffering, to the poor and persecuted.” It is up to us, the communion of the faithful, to acknowledge the failures of some while actively and publicly holding everyone to higher standards.

Saint John’s Abbey offers a good starting point for what we should expect of the entire church. The Abbey hasn’t been perfect, but throughout its history, even when it failed on specific issues or occasions, it continued to be a powerful force for good in most areas. Today, it also is a model for restoring confidence in an institution that very much is needed in today’s world.

Editor’s Note: Jim Frey is president and CEO of the Frey Foundation of Minnesota and a 1978 graduate of Saint John’s University. Frey served on the SJU Board of Regents (now known as the Board of Trustees) from 2001-10 and was chair of the board from 2007-10.

A slightly abbreviated version of the above piece was published in the Saint Cloud Times, March 29, 2014.


Release of Names of Current and Former Monks Likely to Have Offended Against Minors – December 9, 2013

Official Statement of December 9, 2013

Saint John’s Abbey voluntarily is releasing the names of current and former monks who likely have offended against minors. Most of the names previously have been made public. The list includes 18 names: nine monks who are living at Saint John's Abbey under supervised safety plans, seven monks who are deceased and two men who have been dispensed from their religious vows and no longer are connected to the Abbey.

The claims against each of those named were reviewed either by the Abbey’s External Review Board or by the Abbot himself. In each case, it was determined that there was sufficient evidence to include the person on the list.  In some cases, however, all the facts could not be completely substantiated. Claims against some of those named on the list, for example, were not brought to the Abbey’s attention for decades after the accused monk’s death. It is in several of these cases where the Abbot made the determination to include the name of the monk on the list despite the lack of corroborating evidence.

The External Review Board was created in 2003. The seven-member panel includes those who have expertise in the treatment of sexual abuse of minors, judges, attorneys and current and former members of law enforcement. In addition, the Board consistently has included a survivor of sexual abuse. The Board is charged with evaluating allegations of sexual abuse against members of the Abbey and making recommendations for action to the Abbot, as well as conducting annual reviews of individual monks’ safety plans.

“This list reflects our best efforts to identify those who likely have offended against minors,” said Brother Aelred Senna, OSB, spokesperson for the Abbey. “That task often is complicated by the passage of time, the deaths of some of those involved and sometimes incomplete accounts of the past. Even so, we are including all 18 names to provide as complete of a list as we can to acknowledge the pain suffered by victims. This list underscores our commitment to being transparent in our policies and procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse.

"Our commitment is reflected in the policies and procedures implemented over the past decade, particularly the External Review Board. This Board gives victims the assurance that allegations of abuse against minors will be investigated objectively, sensitively and thoroughly," said Brother Aelred.

 

Bik, Michael

Gillespie, Thomas

Maiers, Brennan

McDonald, Finian

Moorse, Dunstan

Phillips, James

Schulte, Francisco

Bennett, Andre†

Blumeyer, Robert†

Eckroth, Richard

Dahlheimer, Cosmas†

Hoefgen, Francis*

Hohmann, Othmar†

Keller, Dominic†

Kelly, John*

Tarlton, Allen

Wendt, Pirmin†

Wollmering, Bruce†

 

† = deceased
* = no longer a monk of Saint John’s

 

Saint John's Abbey Response to Lawsuit Filed November 19, 2013

We are saddened to hear of allegations of misconduct by a former member of our monastic community who left Saint John's in 2011. We have not had the opportunity to review the lawsuit and cannot comment on the specifics of the case.

As a community, Saint John's holds any form of sexual abuse to be morally reprehensible and a violation of our vow to a celibate and chaste life committed to mutual respect among all persons. Thus, over the past decade, we have developed policies and procedures to respond responsibly in a manner that includes a pastoral focus.

In addition, all members of our community against whom established allegations have been made are covered by restrictive safety plans, and we prominently display sexual abuse information on our website. Saint John's continues to be decticated to working with survivors of abuse. We are committed to doing everything possible to assure that the mistakes of our past are not repeated.