St. John’s Abbey names 18 abusing monks

New release expands the lists of accused priests, but advocates say many names of abusive clergy remain secret.

 

The list of local Catholic clergy accused of sex abuse grew longer Monday, when St. John’s Abbey of Collegeville released the names of 18 monks and allegations against a priest working at the University of St. Thomas came to light.

Most of the monks named Monday by St. John’s Abbey also were on a list made public with the settlement of a lawsuit in 2011. That list is missing several credibly accused monks, say attorneys and victims advocates. It’s also missing the monks’ work history and current residences.

“This list reflects our best efforts to identify those who likely have offended against minors,” said Brother Aelred Senna, abbey spokesman. “That task often is complicated by the passage of time, the deaths of some of those involved and sometimes incomplete accounts of the past.”

The developments come days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reversed its long and tenacious resistance to identifying credibly accused clergy and produced a list of 34 priests believed to have committed acts of abuse. The church agreed to a court order releasing the names after a recent wave of new clergy sex abuse allegations that have led to the abrupt departures of several top leaders in the local church. Pressure continues to mount on other Catholic dioceses in the state to make their own lists public.

Richard Sipe, a former St. John’s monk who chaired its Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute from 1994 to 1996, said he’s disappointed that it took so long for St. John’s to make its list public. Most monks on the list had been identified by the abbey years ago, he said.

Many of the monks were in key positions of authority, Sipe said. The late Rev. Cosmas Dahlheimer was the “novice master,” and all the young monks were under his tutelage for a year, he said. The Rev. Finian McDonald served in the university’s counseling center, he said.

Others taught at St. John’s Preparatory School. About half the monks went on to serve in parishes in the archdiocese, said Patrick Wall, a victims advocate at the St. Paul law firm Anderson & Associates, which had demanded that the abbey release the list as part of a pending victim’s lawsuit.

Priest settled sex abuse suit

The archdiocese’s list did not include the Rev. Jean-Pierre Bongila, now director of the International Leadership program at St. Thomas. Bongila reached an out-of-court settlement in San Francisco in 2006 for alleged sexual abuse of a girl, court documents show. The suit, which included claims against the San Francisco Archdiocese, was unresolved when Bongila joined the St. Thomas faculty in 2005.

But by then, church and university officials said, the priest had been cleared by an internal review in San Francisco.

According to the California lawsuit filed in November 2004, Bongila was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1996, while working in the San Francisco Archdiocese, he befriended a family of Congolese immigrants. He allegedly abused a girl in the family from 1996 to 2000 when she visited his church-owned residence. The girl was between 16 and 17 when the alleged abuse started, said Joel H. Siegal, her attorney. She said the priest coerced her by telling her that he was providing financial support to her family and that she should remain silent or face a possible return to Africa.

Siegal said he met with a criminal prosecutor in San Francisco about Bongila, but no charges were filed. The civil case was settled out of court in 2006 with a payment to the alleged victim, he said.

Richard C. Raines, the attorney for Bongila, said there were no court rulings on the merits of the lawsuit. “We viewed it as a case of no merit from the very beginning,” Raines said.

In an e-mail, Bongila said the allegation did not affect his standing as a priest or put him on any church-sanctioned list of priests credibly accused of abusing minors, he noted.

Twin Cities archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said Monday the San Francisco Archdiocese did a full investigation of the accusation, clearing Bongila. The investigation was disclosed to St. Thomas officials before the priest came to Minnesota, and Accurso said Bongila is considered a visiting priest in good standing.

“The district attorney was unwilling to prosecute anything in this case, and Archbishop William Levada, the archbishop of San Francisco [now a U.S. cardinal], wrote a letter in January 2005 exonerating Father Bongila after a full review of the clergy review board,” Accurso said. “Our review of the file from the Archdiocese of San Francisco indicates that there was never any legitimate basis for these allegations.”

Sipe, who lives in California, said he interviewed the family in the Bongila case. “I had no doubt that they were very credible allegations against the priest,” Sipe said. “I was terribly surprised when they sent him to St. Paul.”

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