St. John’s Abbey names 18 abusing monks
- Article by: Jean Hopfensperger and Tony Kennedy
- Star Tribune staff writers
- December 9, 2013 - 9:43 PM
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.”
St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said the university offered a position to Bongila a month before the lawsuit was filed. The school had been in discussions with him about possible employment since 2001, Hennes said. Before the priest started in his new job in 2005, he notified the school of the abuse allegations and then-President Dennis Dease reviewed the case. He concluded that there was no reason to withdraw the job offer, Hennes said.
Still, Hennes said new President Julie Sullivan asked in October that Bongila’s situation be reviewed as part of a newly launched independent investigation regarding clergy sexual abuse allegations that may impact the university. She asked to be notified of any facts “that would warrant placing Bongila on a leave of absence,” Hennes said. “At this point, she has not been made aware of any such concerns.”
Advocates want more names
Also on Monday, a lawsuit was filed in Duluth on behalf of a man in his 50s who said he was sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Klein at Sacred Heart Church in Duluth. The lawsuit by the firm of Jeff Anderson and Associates asks the court to order the release of the Duluth Diocese’s list of 17 credibly accused clergy.
The lists were compiled in 2004 at the request of the U.S. conference of bishops. Ramsey County District Judge John Van de North ordered the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona to produce their lists by Dec. 17. Names added to the list after 2004 are to be made public by Jan. 6.
The St. John’s list released Monday includes nine monks who are living at the abbey under supervision, seven monks who are deceased and two men, Brother John Kelly and the Rev. Francis Hoefgen, who were released from their religious vows, the abbey said.
Advocates say the list does not include four monks previously identified by the abbey, including former abbot John Eidenschink, the Rev. Steven Lilly, the Rev. James Kelly and the Rev. Isaac Connolly. It also doesn’t include the name of a former abbot, the late Timothy Kelly, founder of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute at St. John’s.
Meanwhile, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is calling for St. John’s officials to post the latest list of names on its website, including work histories, photos and current residences, and to move monks under its supervision to locations where they cannot harm children.
Sipe, who attended school and later served as a monk at St. John’s for more than 25 years, said the abuse problems have overshadowed the abbey’s good work. “There are so many good men there, they ought to receive credit for the good they do — but without dismissing the harm that others have done.”
St. John’s spokesman Senna said the abbey is using new abuse policies and procedures established during the past decade, which assure victims that their allegations of abuse against minors will be investigated thoroughly.
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