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.
More information on these and other related issues is available at http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/info/safe-environment/
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
Official Statement of December 9, 2013 : Release of Names of Monks Who Likely Have Offended Against Minors
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.
† = deceased
* = no longer a monk of Saint John’s
For more information on Saint John’s Abbey’s policies and procedures regarding response to sexual abuse, see the Safe Environment section of this web site.
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. Information on safety plans and Saint John's commitment tot he safety of young people can be found at http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/info/abbey-response-sexual-abuse-allegations/.