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Decades Of Abuse And Secrecy At St. John's Abbey

Sep 29, 2002 | Star Tribune

The timid young monk walked into the bedroom of the Rev. John Eidenschink, the third-most powerful priest at St. John's Abbey.

It was late on a Thursday night in the winter of 1962, the man remembers. The last prayers had been said; most of his classmates were asleep, and it was time again for the monk to meet with his spiritual counselor and confessor. The monk was in his early 20s and had been seeking advice on whether to become a priest or leave that celibate world for marriage.

Eidenschink, sitting in a chair next to his bed, issued a brusque command:

"Take off your clothes."

The novice monk took off his habit, folded it onto a chair and stripped naked. Eidenschink rose to turn down his bed.

It was just as it had been the week before and the week before that. Shaking with fright and cold, the obedient monk lay down on the top of the bed covers.

Eidenschink asked him about his sexual fantasies, his fears and whether he felt inadequate with women.

As the monk became aroused, Eidenschink began to touch him and examine his genitals, at one point using a tape measure. He reassured the young monk that there was nothing physically wrong with him. The painful and humiliating abuse continued for an hour.

Confused after the first such encounter, the monk sought out the rector of the seminary to tell him what Eidenschink had done and to ask if this was normal. The rector became angry and shouted at him to leave the room, he said.

The weekly visits, which spanned about three months, remained a secret as Eidenschink worked his way to become abbot. By 1971, he had been elected the seventh abbot of St. John's, the largest Benedictine institution in the world. All the while, he appeared to be a model priest, an intellectual, a can-do pragmatist who was instrumental in helping transform the 1850s institution into a modern, internationally recognized educational center.

The monk, who asked that his identity be withheld, went on to become a priest. But by 1976 he had decided that the life was not for him. He left the priesthood to marry and raise a family. He said he continues to get counseling.

Eidenschink's secret behavior and the rector's failure to deal with it epitomized a culture where powerful men abused others and were protected behind what the St. John's community calls the Pine Curtain, the dense rows of trees that surround the campus and symbolically shield the monks inside.

The sexual abuse continued for decades. It existed in an atmosphere of permissiveness that included abbey leaders at various levels, including Eiden Schink, who were abusers themselves.

Eidenschink's successor, Abbot Jerome Theisen, who ran the abbey through the 1980s, assigned some monks with a history of sex abuse to work with children, abbey records and sworn depositions show.

The abbey said it has responded swiftly in recent years to assist victims. Its leaders are apologetic.

"I am deeply sorry that some members of the Saint John's monastic community have violated such a fundamental part of our commitment by engaging in abusive behavior," Abbot John Klassen wrote in a letter to the public in June. He said that to the best of his knowledge, there have been no allegations of sexual misconduct since 1992.

A settlement that was reached in recent weeks is meant to address claims without lengthy court battles, said Robert Stich, an attorney representing the abbey.

The settlement holds the abbey accountable for harm caused by abusive monks, said attorney Jeff Anderson, and ensures safeguards to prevent abuse in the future. Abbey officials and victims will discuss the details Tuesday at St. John's.

Interviews with victims and former monks and a review of previously undisclosed legal documents depict a sexually charged atmosphere at St. John's that abbey leaders failed to control for at least four decades.

They also provide insight into how the abbey's reputation has been deeply scarred and how suspicion has been cast on the many monks who have served faithfully and with integrity.

Abbey leaders provided inadequate instruction to young monks on how to live a celibate life, understand their sexuality and find emotional intimacy as brothers without compromising their vows of celibacy, said Richard Sipe, a former abbey monk and a nationally recognized psychotherapist.

When monks broke those vows, they faced little consequence, he said.

Sipe, who was a monk at St. John's from 1952 to 1970, specializes in priest-abuse issues. Interviews with Sipe and other former monks detail the abbey's secretive culture that dates at least to the 1960s.

The former monk who said he was abused by Eidenschink also said that a novice master frequently would hug him and sucked on his earlobes at least four times. Decades later, that novice master was sued for alleged sexual abuse of children and is now on restriction.

"The instruction in sexuality just wasn't there," Sipe said. When vows were broken, he said, silence filled the vacuum and the secrets stayed within the abbey's walls.

"Part of it is this theological rationalization that forgiveness is superior to everything," he said. "And, of course, forgiveness is important, but forgiveness goes along with reform. They didn't reform."

Instead, he said, a sort of "secret system" sprang up. "So there becomes a kind of bond. It's almost a conspiracy of silence."

Much of the toll can be traced to a group of monks who, at times, publicly flaunted their sexual intentions, expressed their desires for expensive worldly goods and showed disdain for those who questioned how that fit with a monastic life.

Sipe said he knew of one novice master, responsible for shepherding young monks as they prepared for monastic life -- who made it clear that he didn't want to discuss living a celibate life. Sipe said the novice master's order was known as: "Read the rule and leave me alone."

Still, despite its failures, Sipe said he has high regard for the abbey because of the education he received and the friendships he formed.

A 'competition'

Patrick Marker, a St. John's prep school student in the 1980s, said some of the abusive priests targeted certain kinds of students, depending on their interests.

One monk went after the wealthy or popular jocks, he said. Another liked the quiet and innocent kids. Another sought out the artistic crowd.

"I think they competed with each other to see who had more people in their group," Marker said. "My feeling was there was competition among monks and teachers to have a following."

Last spring, in the face of what the abbey called the media's "relentless coverage" of "unconscionable acts," the order acknowledged that some of its monks are prohibited from interacting with students and restricted to living at the abbey because of credible evidence of sexual misconduct. The monks on restriction declined through the abbey to be interviewed.

Still, parents in parishes throughout central Minnesota question how far the abuse has reached over the years. Some are left to wonder whether their children's suicides, hospitalizations or other troubles sprang from priestly abuse.

"Of all the orders I've dealt with in the last two decades, St. John's, in the way they've handled this issue, is the darkest of the dark," said St. Paul attorney Anderson, who has won tens of millions of dollars on behalf of dozens of sex-abuse victims nationally over nearly two decades.

"It's no accident there's never been a priest prosecuted [at St. John's]," he said. "They have enjoyed a situation of deference and preference in the community and in our culture. The Catholic Church, in particular the abbey, operates above the law and below the law, but not according to it."

The 1960s

Situated on 2,400 acres of rolling hills and surrounded by lakes in Stearns County, the abbey for decades has touted its campus as the ideal place for parents to send their children.

For many, going off to St. John's meant getting a prestigious education, moral lessons from religious mentors and strict discipline.

Thom Gmeinder, a prep school student there in the 1960s, said St. John's has many good attributes.

"It's a good place," he said. "It's just made up of people, like the rest of the world."

But one incident in the infirmary when he was about 14 or 15 was deeply unsettling.

He had gone to the abbey infirmary with the flu. Another sick student offered a warning.

"Watch out for that guy. He sneaks around at night," he remembers the student telling him, referring to Brother Andre Bennett, the monk who ran the infirmary.

Gmeinder said later that he soon found out what the student meant.

He said he remembered Bennett giving him sleeping pills; he later awoke to find Bennett fondling him.

Another student had a similar story. Lying in the infirmary sick with pneumonia in the mid-1960s, prep schooler Jeff Gair woke up in the middle of the night to a bright light shining in his eyes.

Squinting, he could barely see the outline of a large man wearing a T-shirt standing next to his bed. With one hand, the man shone a flashlight in Gair's face. With the other, he fondled Gair under the covers.

Gair said he could tell that the man was Brother Bennett. He repressed the memory for nearly four decades, he says now, and it took him years to realize how it affected his relationships and work performance.

"Whenever I thought of St. John's, I would have an icky taste in my mouth," Gair said. Figuring it out "was a huge piece missing to the puzzle of my life."

Abbey spokesman the Rev. Columba Stewart said Friday that Bennett doesn't remember whether the incidents took place. "Because of his use of alcohol at that time he honestly doesn't remember," he said. "It's not a 'denial.' . . . He just can't speak for what he may have been doing at that time because of the alcohol."

Stewart said that Bennett received treatment for using prescription drugs years later. Bennett is on restriction.

Throughout the 1960s, some students and young monks were exposed to a deviant subculture on a campus that aspired to be a pure and holy place.

Abbey monks who had taken vows of celibacy confided sexual fantasies to each other and talked of weekend partying at gay bars in Minneapolis.

It seemed, thought Brother Timothy Pembroke, that there was nobody in charge who was willing to confront the behavior.

Many nights, after evening prayers and dinner, Pembroke said he played bridge with other monks and wound up listening to conversations laced with sexual innuendo.

"It would just be flippant remarks about so and so, 'What a nice butt,' " Pembroke said. "The more outrageous the better. . . . The way they dressed, the way they fluttered." They chided him for not taking part, jokingly calling him "Butch."

During the same decade, a St. John's priest assaulted a 9-year-old boy in a parish just down the highway from the monastery.

The Rev. Brennan Maiers served a parish in St. Joseph, a predominantly Catholic community of a few thousand people. Many had such reverence for the church that they couldn't believe a priest would do wrong.

But the 9-year-old, Joe Johnson, knew otherwise.

After saying mass one day, Maiers exposed himself and fondled Johnson in a church hall. Another day, Johnson remembers clenching his teeth to keep the priest's tongue out of his mouth while the priest fondled himself.

"I didn't participate," Johnson recalled. "It's like I left my body and I watched it happen."

He buried the memories and didn't speak of it for years.

The 1970s

Maybe it was the sexual revolution of the previous decade, one former monk says now. Maybe it was the reverberations of Vatican II, which changed church traditions so much that boundaries of appropriate behavior blurred.

Whatever it was, he said, a group of abbey monks felt free to pursue confused young novices entering the abbey.

The former monk described how they would "descend on them like vultures when the lunch buffet was served in the dining room. The novices wouldn't know their backside from a patch of petunias." The ex-monk asked not to be named because he now counsels priests, teachers and doctors who have been accused of abuse.

Sipe, the psychotherapist, said monks related similar stories to him. "They were being courted," he said.

On the outside, the public assumed the monks were living a simple life: Besides vowing celibacy, they had vowed to live a spiritual, obedient life of poverty.

On the inside, one monk collected Waterford crystal, the former monk recalled. While the abbey housed rooms full of used clothes and furniture, monks took their parents' credit cards to Dayton's to buy the latest trends.

"It wasn't only their parents' credit cards. They had their own credit cards, or abbey credit cards, even," Sipe said. He said that one monk complained to abbey leaders about the monks' spending and that those concerns were dismissed.

The former monk recalled how a drunken senior monk pounded on a door in the middle of the night, begging another monk to let him in and shouting, "I love you, I need you!"

Only after Pembroke had left St. John's and was in graduate school on the West Coast did he understand how hypocritical the monastery had become. He decided it was no longer the place for him. He no longer wanted be around what he called "cliques of predators."

His decision made, Pembroke made one last trip to the abbey and met with Eiden schink.

"I told him the main issue with me was the promiscuity that goes on," Pembroke, now 58 and married, recalled from his home near Seattle. He left puzzled by the lack of response. Eidenschink simply offered to send him the necessary paperwork to leave the abbey, he said.

When he learned this spring that Eidenschink also had been accused of abusing young monks, it all made sense.

"John Eidenschink was a canon lawyer," he said. "They protect themselves."

Abbot Klassen recalled, however, that Eidenschink did intervene in two cases of inappropriate sexual behavior by monks, removing one monk from a residence hall and asking another monk to leave.

Klassen also said that while he has heard people talk about a sexually charged atmosphere in the monastery in the 1970s, it wasn't part of his experience then.

While the monks lived in an enclosed world in the monastery through the 1970s, many of the campus workers were oblivious to what was happening and trusted monks implicitly.

The Rev. Richard Eckroth endeared himself to some of those workers by taking their children for weekends to the abbey's lake cabin near Bemidji.

Some of the children who went on those getaways eventually told stories of what had happened there.

Eckroth sat naked and exchanged massages with naked children in the cabin's sauna, one child said. Another child later said Eckroth raped her there. Two boys later said he abused them in the cabin.

John Vogel said he was no more than 8 years old when Eckroth appeared before him in the middle of the night in the cabin. Eckroth used the weight of his body to hold the boy down and rape him for what "seemed like a year," Vogel later told attorneys.

When it was over, Eckroth spoke of religion, Vogel said. Then Eckroth led him to the sink to wash him off. Afterward, Vogel curled up in bed with a pillow over his head "so I couldn't hear nothing, just going to sleep," he told attorneys.

Eckroth told Vogel that if he talked about the abuse, Eckroth would kill him, Vogel said. So he said nothing until years later when he was in marriage counseling.

Eckroth is one of the 11 monks on restriction at St. John's, but he hasn't admitted to sexual misconduct.

Eckroth also is under suspicion for even more serious crimes. The Stearns County Sheriff's Office said he remains one of three or four suspects in the 1974 stabbing deaths of 12-year-old Susanne Reker and 15-year-old Mary Reker, two sisters from St. Cloud whose bodies were found in a remote quarry.

Both girls had been to the abbey cabin with Eckroth two years before their deaths.

The 1980s

In 1982, Ed Vessel, an employee at the abbey's Liturgical Press, met with Theisen and told him that he suspected Eckroth had sexually abused his son and possibly others, including his daughter.

"What would you have me do?" Theisen responded, according to Vessel.

Vessel had plenty of suggestions: Keep the priest away from kids, pull him from his assignment, get him counseling.

But Theisen allowed Eckroth to continue working as a parish priest in the Bahamas, where he had been assigned in 1977.

Theisen's inaction with Eckroth was only the beginning. He also let four other priests who had been accused of abuse work among children throughout the 1980s.

The same year that Vessel poured out his pain to Theisen, a teenage prep student confided a dark secret to the school chaplain: Brother John Kelly had had sexual contact with him.

The chaplain promptly reported it to Theisen, court documents show. The student left the abbey for several months, but when he returned, Kelly began where he had left off.

Kelly was later placed on restriction, but has since taken a leave of absence from the abbey.

In 1979, the school chaplain told Theisen that he believed that another monk, the Rev. Allen Tarlton, had engaged in sexual contact with a prep school student. Theisen's investigation of that allegation consisted only of talking to Tarlton.

Three years later, Tarlton had sex with a student from his English class. The student, John Arendt, said he had been worried that he would be expelled from school because he was gay. He said later in a deposition that he felt he could trust Tarlton and confide his fears to him.

He and Tarlton speculated about which monks and students on campus might be gay, and which monks had sexual relationships with students.

But Tarlton took advantage of those fears, Arendt said. One night in his ground-floor prep school office, the two drank wine and talked about sex.

"I want to see you naked," Tarlton said.

Arendt stripped.

"Father Allen fondled me, caressed me all over my body," Arendt recalled.

Tarlton didn't deny the incident. "I can still see that scene in my mind," he said later in a deposition.

Arendt sued St. John's in 1992. He died a few years later.

In December l982, Tarlton went into treatment for alcoholism and issues surrounding his homosexuality. He was allowed to return to the classroom the next year.

The ramifications of Theisen's decision to allow him to resume teaching continue to unfold. Another former student sued Tarlton last spring, alleging Tarlton abused him three years after abusing Arendt. Today, Tarlton is on restriction.

In another case, Theisen allowed the Rev. Francis Hoefgen to lead a parish in Hastings after Hoefgen had sex with a troubled teenage boy. The boy had gone to live with Hoefgen in the parish house in 1983 after attempting suicide.

Hoefgen confessed to Cold Spring Police Chief Vincent Konz, a parishioner who later expressed concern about the case becoming public. He met with Hoefgen in private rather than at the police station or the rectory because he didn't want to "cause speculation," he told lawyers.

"There's so many small people in a small town like this they could crucify the guy," Konz said. "And maybe he had it coming, but that wasn't the way things were handled in those days. My concern was what it would do to the faith community."

Hoefgen was sent to the East Coast for treatment. The Stearns County attorney's office declined to charge him. Hoefgen is on restriction at the abbey.

In spring 1984, Theisen began hearing about incidents involving another teacher, the Rev. Dunstan Moorse. He considered removing Moorse from the prep school because he might have propositioned students.

More questions followed over the next two years. In his running file on Moorse, Theisen wrote that prep students accused Moorse of "some words of invitation, holding hands, a touching and a hugging. Dunstan says it is 85 percent correct. He did it to keep the fellow from coming around to him and to his office! What a method of keeping him at a distance!"

Theisen wrote about another advance by Moorse: "He apparently asked a student to disrobe. He also blocked a student from leaving his office, or he tried to do so. How many more incidents are there?"

Soon after, Moorse left to attend graduate school.

In late 1986, Theisen noted that he was leaning toward assigning Moorse to teach at Benilde-St. Margaret High School in St. Louis Park. He waited several months before making his decision.

"I know it is a risk," Theisen wrote in the file, but he sent him there anyway.

Sipe said that Theisen struggled to address the issue of abuse. "He was trying very hard to clean things up," Sipe said. "I know that he had people come out and lecture on homosexuality. I don't think he knew what to do with it. But he acknowledged it as a problem."

About a year later, Moorse asked if he could return to the prep school. Theisen was hesitant because of the two previous incidents and potential legal issues.

By 1990, Moorse had returned to the abbey. An allegation surfaced of a previous relationship with a student. "He does not deny the case," Theisen wrote.

Moorse has been sued by four former students who allege that he abused them. The abbey has settled with two of them.

One of the students who settled, Patrick Marker, said Moorse abused him in April 1983. Moorse admitted the abuse in a 1992 deposition.

The 1990s

Throughout the 1990s, the victims of abbey monks rose up one by one to tear down the curtain of secrecy that protected St. John's.

At least a dozen men sued the abbey or its monks, bringing their allegations into the open.

Joe Johnson, the St. Joseph altar boy who Maiers abused in a church hall, was one of them.

Johnson had buried his memories of abuse for nearly 20 years. But one evening, sitting at a meeting at St. John's, he said, they came rushing back when someone mentioned Maiers' name.

Still, for another five years, Johnson didn't say a word. He was afraid of what people might think. His marriage was crumbling and he was about to lose his family. He couldn't stand the thought of other children being hurt the way he had been. On his way to work, he watched utility poles fly by and thought about steering his car into one, he said.

Finally, after going to counseling, he wrote a letter to Theisen. When Theisen confronted Maiers, the priest didn't deny abusing Johnson and said he felt sorry for hurting him.

It wasn't the first time church leaders had heard about Maiers' sexual activity. He'd been cited for indecent conduct by an undercover Minneapolis police officer at an adult movie theater in 1984. He had also had sexual relationships with a woman and two men while he was a priest in New York in the 1970s, he said later in a deposition.

Johnson said he asked for a written apology from Maiers, but Theisen wouldn't allow it. So he sued under the pseudonym John Doe.

St. Joseph residents found it hard to believe. They said that the incidents had happened a long time ago and that John Doe should learn to forgive and forget. A friend of Johnson's mother wondered aloud to her: What had the boy done to make the priest do that to him?

Johnson was surprised that anyone would use that reasoning. Soon afterward, he revealed that he was John Doe.

"It's harder for people to say something negative if you know who it is," he said. The case was settled in late 1992, and Johnson received a check from the abbey. But his suit wasn't just about money, he said.

"I feel that what Father Brennan has taken from me, money can't buy," Johnson told lawyers.

Less than a year later, abbey leaders took action to address its longest-standing allegation: They pulled Eckroth from his parish in the Bahamas. More allegations had surfaced of sexual abuse at the abbey cabin decades earlier. He was heading to treatment at St. Luke Institute in Maryland.

Today

The abbey now is on a mission to restore its credibility.

Attorney Anderson says that national media coverage of priest abuse has forced abbey leaders to be more forthcoming.

In addition to the settlement to be announced Tuesday, Abbott Klassen has met with victims and arranged for checks to pay for their counseling. By the end of July, 24 people had received money from the abbey for counseling to address sexual-abuse issues.

"We did not anticipate the relentless coverage and review of past cases in the press," Klassen wrote this spring in a letter to oblates, lay people spiritually associated with the abbey. " . . . This is precisely an instance where we should have been more transparent from the get-go with you."

Accompanying Klassen's letter was one from Tarlton. He was not completely forthcoming.

In the letter, Tarlton, who was then oblate director, acknowledged that he had sexually abused a prep student 20 years ago. But he didn't mention what he had disclosed to attorneys in a 1993 deposition that he had had sex with three St. John's University students in the mid-1950s, as well.

"I feel like the ancient mariner wearing my albatross around my neck," Tarlton wrote to the oblates. He described the range of emotions he has experienced: "Shame, self-pity, self-loathing, attempting to be defiant, being angry at putting myself in this position, frustrated because there seems to be no end to the consequences of my behavior.

"Even the impulse to pray often seems to me to be hypocritical, knowing that I have hurt other people, and yet wondering if I am sincerely sorry for what I have done."

Klassen said in an interview that Tarlton hadn't discussed his previous sexual relationships with him.

Soon after Klassen was elected abbot in November 2000, he began to meet with victims of abuse. He decided to release a victim of Eidenschink from a confidentiality agreement because it was hindering the victim's recovery. He did so realizing that it would mean that Eidenschink's history would become public.

Eidenschink had been moved into a nursing home in the 1980s after another allegation of abuse surfaced, abbey spokesman Stewart said Friday. "The assumption is that Abbot John Eidenschink acknowledged it at the time," Stewart said.

Eidenschink returned to the abbey in the early 1990s. "As our understanding of this issue evolved, it was felt that even the nursing home was inappropriate," Stewart said.

On a late afternoon last spring, Klassen went to the priest's room in the monastery. He knew the meeting would be painful.

Eidenschink, the abbot he'd looked up to when he was a novice in the 1970s, was in his mid-80s and in frail health. "I think there was an emotional reservoir there that probably is not present in other kinds of situations like this," Klassen recalled this summer.

Klassen knew that as abbot he had to be Christlike and yet direct: He told Eidenschink that it was likely his abusive behavior would become public.

Both men were close to tears. Eidenschink said he had had his reasons for what he had done to the monks. He explained that he'd read an article on counseling that described different methods for helping people address their own sexual issues.

"He said it got away from him," Klassen said. "I guess that would be the simplest way to say it."

Trying to be supportive, Klassen found himself running out of words.

The two prayed. Klassen blessed the abuser and left, knowing the Pine Curtain was about to be pulled down.


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