17 named in clergy sex-abuse case

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2011 - 6:31 PM

St. John's Abbey released names of accused as part of lawsuit settlement.

The identities of 17 monks who have faced "credible allegations of sexual abuse" or other misconduct were made public Monday, representing a break in the secrecy that has long surrounded most Minnesota clergy abuse cases.

The names were released by St. John's Abbey of Collegeville as part of a settlement of clergy abuse lawsuits announced on Monday by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson. The clergy taught at St. John's Preparatory School or were assigned to parishes in St. Cloud.

Anderson, the attorney for nine people who say they were abused by the Roman Catholic priests and brothers at the abbey, declined to say how much money his clients will get in the settlement. He instead emphasized that the case has always been more about exposing the names of clergy being accused.

"This is about a systemic, widespread problem [in the Catholic Church]," Anderson said. "The officials in these cases are the ones who need to be held accountable."

The public naming of accused clergy who have not been charged with a crime represents a change in approach to cases in Minnesota, among other places in the country.

At least 17 monks who had "credible allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation or misconduct brought against them while they were working in one of the apostolates of St. John's Abbey, or before they were a member of the abbey" were listed in a letter from its abbot, John Klassen, expected to be sent to people who attended the prep school, Anderson said.

Of the 17, four are deceased, three are no longer at St. John's and the others live at the abbey "with the constraints of a safety plan and supervision," according to the letter, which was part of the terms of the settlement agreement.

Ten of the men are still residing at the abbey but have restricted access to minors and other constraints, according to Michael Ford, an attorney for the abbey. None of the 17 listed in the letter have been criminally charged, he said.

The letter will be signed by Klassen once he returns from an out-of-town trip, and then it will be posted on St. John's Abbey website, Ford said. A draft of the letter was made public by Anderson during a news conference at his St. Paul office.

Taking responsibility

"One of the things the abbey gets criticized for is allowing people who have credible allegations against them to remain members of the community," said Ford.

"They [the abbey] keep them on board partly ... because of the fact that if they release them, then they're out in the community. So St. John's is in effect standing behind these monks from a financial responsibility standpoint."

Asked whether he was confident these monks would not offend again, Ford said: "I sure hope not. We're doing everything we can to make sure it's a responsible decision. We're not just sitting back, rolling the dice. We turn them over to professionals, we have them evaluated, we monitor their safety plan."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a clergy sex abuse expert at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., said the diocese of Baltimore and others have begun to make public lists of credibly accused clergy in an attempt to be more transparent and rebuild credibility in the wake of the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal.

"The argument in favor of putting up the list is ... it often invites other victims to come forward," Reese said. "The victims feel like this helps in the healing process. There's a public acknowledgement of what happened to these victims.

"The bottom line is the church did such a bad job in handling this [clergy sex abuse], that no one has any confidence or trust in the hierarchy's handling of these priests,'' Reese continued. "I think it's inevitable in today's world, the church is going to have to publish these names."

Anderson said similar lists like the one issued by St. John's exist within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, but those have been blocked from being released by court order. The archdiocese has previously said such disclosure could damage a potentially innocent clergy member.

One of the nine sex-abuse victims, Jeramiah McCarthy, 55, spoke on behalf of the others who were at the news conference Monday, but did not want to be identified. McCarthy said the late Rev. Bruce Wollmering served as his counselor at the school and "attacked me in his office" when McCarthy was 15 years old.

"I just hope that it does stop," McCarthy said. "I hope people who this has happened to come forward and get some help."

The settlement covers allegations against 10 clergy, Anderson said. The abbot's letter includes the names of eight of those 10, Anderson added. The other two clergy are Brother Pascal Brisson, who has left the abbey, and the Rev. Pirmim Wendt, who is deceased.

40 years of abuse

Anderson said the victims in the settlement ranged in ages from 9 to 16 years old at the time of their alleged abuse. The abuse began as early as 1960 and continued to at least 2000, the attorney said.

Monks who are living at the abbey with a "safety plan" do so voluntarily as a condition for remaining a monk of St. John's Abbey, Ford said. These safety plans are not court-ordered. As part of a safety plan, a monk who has sexually abused a minor cannot officiate at mass or any sacrament in public. He may not preach, teach or associate with students, staff or parishioners in a ministerial relationship.

Monks who are living with a safety plan are generally free to move about campus with the exception of the Preparatory School buildings, college residence halls or swimming pool-fitness center. They are free to use the library, the bookstore, and to walk the roads and byways on the campus. Most St. John's monks on a safety plan are engaged in one or the other of ongoing therapy, spiritual direction and group work, for the sake of their emotional and spiritual health.

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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