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St. John's Abbey, Abuse Victims Agree To Settlement

Oct 2, 2002 | St. Paul Pioneer Press,

Gathered on the very grounds where monks of St. John's Abbey sexually abused them, past victims Tuesday embraced reparations they hope will become a model for the Roman Catholic Church.

An out-of-court settlement was announced between the abbey and more than a dozen victims who were abused between the 1960s and 1980s. As part of the settlement, the abbey will make an undisclosed financial award to the victims.

The agreement also calls for several "noncompensation" measures, including creation of a review board composed entirely of members outside the St. John's Abbey hierarchy: abuse survivors and parents, law enforcement and judicial officials and a mental health professional.

"We put together a model we hope will be embraced by every church, every diocese and every religious order across the country," said the victims' attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul. "The model provides for prevention, healing and reconciliation."

The board will have authority to investigate allegations and determine whether monks credibly accused should be removed from ministry. Abbot John Klassen said the board will have such authority not because the accused are guilty until proven innocent, but because protecting children should be paramount when allegations arise.

"It's not the first time an external review board process has been established to address these issues," Anderson said, "but I believe this is the first time … where the control over it was not exercised by the head of a diocese or the general superior of the order or the abbot.

"That's a breakthrough."

In June, U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas and established a national clergy sexual abuse review board. Similar groups operate in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and other Minnesota dioceses. Some past victims have been lukewarm to such boards because the church typically appoints the members.

Because St. John's Abbey is operated by the Benedictines, an order of the Catholic Church, it is not automatically subject to the guidelines of diocesan bishops. Abuse survivors seemed more hopeful about the abbey's plan.

"This is very, very promising," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The composition of this board is very balanced and very explicit. In a number of ways, I feel much more optimistic about this."

The abbey pledged to place accused offenders on immediate leave while allegations are investigated and to disclose the identity of proven abusers to bishops, church leaders and law enforcement officials. When an allegation is substantiated, notice will be sent to parishioners, students and alumni.

The abbey in Collegeville is adjacent to St. John's University and St. John's Preparatory School. At least 11 of the abbey's nearly 200 monks have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct, Klassen said. Contact by the 11 with students and other potential victims is restricted.

The settlement also calls for the abbey to pay for a retreat in St. Cloud, Minn., for abuse survivors, continuation of counseling and spiritual direction for past victims, and professional training at the abbey and adjacent schools about preventing sexual abuse.

Victim-survivors, including the eight who were present for Tuesday's announcement next to the Abbey Church, participated in four days of mediation sessions in mid-August that led to the agreement. Negotiations between the abbey and Anderson began in June.

"Having heard an expression from Abbot Klassen and the Abbey of St. John's that they wanted to come to the table, we went to the table," Anderson said. "It has been a process unlike any other that I've been involved in. There has been a genuine and real expression and effort by Abbot Klassen and this community to become part of the solution to this problem instead of being a part of it."

Anderson has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse throughout the United States in the past 20 years. Tuesday's settlement concludes all cases he represented against St. John's Abbey. Klassen said no other cases are pending, and no charges have been brought since 1992.

"There had been a secret kept for decades and for centuries," Anderson said. "It was kept here, and kept in other churches. We're really here today because about two decades ago, several young men and women had the courage to break the silence. They had the will and courage and spirit to come forward." Anderson has settled about a dozen previous cases against the abbey in the past 15 years, he said.

Klassen apologized to the victims and families who were present Tuesday. Arlene Vogel, mother of three boys abused by monks in the 1970s, greeted Klassen with a long embrace, and left by whispering in his ear, "I'll be praying for you.

"He's hurting, and he visited with us and knows how we're hurting and how the victims are hurting," she said. "He wanted to make it right. Money will not heal, but the public apologies and the personal apologies and this board are what's going to make it happen."

Her son, Allen Vogel, called it a "huge day."

"What has occurred here today raises the bar so high, the rest of the country has to look to it."


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