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  Restricted Priests Still Travel
Abbot Says St. John's Will Tighten Its Policy

By Warren Wolfe; Pam Louwagie; Jackie Crosby
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
May 12, 2002

Restrictions on the movements of nine St. John's Abbey priests accused of sexual abuse have not kept at least four of them from traveling to Rome, the abbey's missions in the Bahamas and Japan, or elsewhere in Minnesota and other states.

The monks' travel has followed the abbey's existing policy, but Abbot John Klassen said he is tightening restrictions on one priest because of "heightened awareness of the need for supervision and oversight."

Klassen said the Rev. Finian McDonald will not be allowed to travel this year to the Bahamas, where he has regularly spent several months each year at the abbey's mission. McDonald "probably won't" go there ever again, the abbot added.

The Rev. Richard Eckroth, sued twice in the early 1990s for allegedly abusing two boys and now among the suspects in the 1974 slayings of two St. Cloud girls _ has continued to use an abbey cabin in rural Beltrami County where some of the alleged abuse occurred.

Eckroth has denied any involvement in sexual abuse or the deaths of Mary Reker, 15, and her sister, Susanne, 12.

Since at least 1995, the cabin has been off limits to all but monks and their families, Klassen said.

Neighbors living near the cabin on Swenson Lake near Bemidji said that while they frequently have seen Eckroth there, most recently last fall, they haven't seen children there for a number of years.

Other priests who are known to have traveled are the Rev. Allen Tarlton and the Rev. Francis Hoefgen. Tarlton went to Rome about 18 months ago to attend the beatification of a benefactor of St. John's; Hoefgen regularly leads spiritual retreats in southeastern Minnesota and is scheduled to go there again in June.

Their stories

The Star Tribune is identifying the four priests, who have not been charged with any crimes, because they have been publicly identified by the abbot and have been named in court documents. None of the four agreed to be interviewed for this report.

The abbey's sexual-abuse policy of restricting offenders' activities has been seen by some as a model that might guide Catholic bishops when they meet next month to chart a national policy on sexual abuse.

However, even some of its defenders are wary of the ease with which monks under restrictions at St. John's are able to travel.

In addition to the nine, four other monks are under restrictions for sexual misconduct that does not involve others. All but two of the 13 have admitted the allegations against them, and all 13 have accepted the restrictions, which have been in place for most of them since the early 1990s, Klassen said.

Under the restrictions, the monks are told where they can go and whom they can see. The policy is designed to protect potential victims and to keep the priests from committing further abuse, Klassen said.

It also allows the monks to travel.

"It is an honor system, but the travel has been for work-specific reasons, for the most part, and I am not aware of any priest" violating the restrictions, Klassen said.

At times, the priests travel alone; when they travel with others, their companions are not instructed to watch over them, Klassen said.

Internet sites affiliated with the Catholic Church, including the St. John's Abbey Web site, offer details about four of the monks who have traveled while under restrictions.

- Hoefgen, 51, was sued in 1992 for alleged sexual abuse of a young person while he was assistant pastor at St. Boniface Church in Cold Spring during the 1980s. The abbey settled the lawsuit out of court.

Now a spiritual director, Hoefgen for some years has visited Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center near Frontenac to lead individually directed retreats. He will return there for nine days next month "with the knowledge and approval of the diocese and the community [that operates the center]," Klassen said. "They're fully aware of the situation."

- Tarlton, 74, was sued in 1992 by a Texas man who said Tarlton sexually abused him on three occasions a decade earlier when the man attended St. John's prep school on the abbey grounds. The abuse occurred in Tarlton's office when he was counseling the student on spiritual and emotional matters, the lawsuit said.

Stearns County District Judge Vicki Landwehr dismissed the suit in May 1994 because the statute of limitations had expired, although she stated in the order that there had been at least one incident of sexual contact between the two.

In October 2000, Tarlton traveled with another priest to Rome for the beatification of Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. As a child, Tarlton had met her when she visited his grade school in Cincinnati, and she had given money to missions that St. John's used to serve at the White Earth and Red Lake Indian reservations in northern Minnesota.

- McDonald, 73, who had traveled to the Bahamas for extended visits long after the abbey settled a sexual-abuse suit against him, was a teacher at St. John's University and was its dean of men and vice president for student affairs from 1964 to 1967.

One of his trips to the Bahamas was to care for a dying monk, Klassen said. He said that McDonald also has visited the abbey's mission in Japan.

- Eckroth, 75, was sued twice in 1994 for sexual abuse. John Vogel, who now lives in Texas, said that Eckroth abused him at the abbey's cabin in the summer of 1971 or 1972 and threatened to kill him if he told anyone. Eckroth denied the allegations, and the matter was settled out of court in June 1995.

The other suit against Eckroth alleged that the priest twice abused a 7-year-old boy, once involving sodomy at the cabin and a second involving fondling in the rectory at St. Augustine's Church in St. Cloud, where Eckroth also was a pastor. Eckroth again denied the allegations. That suit also was settled out of court.

In addition to the lawsuits, two women have alleged that Eckroth sexually abused them as children at the lake cabin.

Last week, Klassen sent a check for $10,000 to Helen Olson, 42, of Woodbury, who said she was raped by Eckroth when she was 11. He sent her a check for $2,000 in April. While not acknowledging that abuse took place, Klassen's letter noted that, "I know that this ordeal has been very hard for you."

He said Friday that he is considering making a payment to a 38-year-old Idaho woman, Elizabeth Vessel, who also said she was abused by Eckroth. Klassen said he will make a final decision when he receives a formal request from her.

Eckroth taught philosophy at St. John's University from 1952 to 1976 and was a faculty resident in student housing from 1964 to 1967. He also served as chaplain at the monastery, university and a high school.

He served as a priest at St. Augustine from 1973 and 1974, and was pastor at Seven Dolors Church in Albany, Minn., from 1974 to 1976. From 1977 to 1993, he worked at the abbey's mission in Nassau, the Bahamas, where he served as an associate pastor, then took charge of the six churches on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. He later oversaw construction of a new church on Bimini.

He was permitted to visit Nassau in 1997 to attend a ceremony for another priest who became prior, or leader, of the small mission.

Klassen said that the abbey has settled all lawsuits that would have gone to trial. He said the abbey also has made payments to some people who have not sued, including two men abused by former Abbot John Eidenschink. One of those men continues to receive financial help for counseling and living expenses, Klassen said.

Outside opinions

The travels of the monks have caused concern among some outside observers.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a California psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk and priest who has studied sexual-abuse cases in the Catholic Church, was part of a group of experts who advised St. John's on how to deal with a series of sex-abuse cases that surfaced in the early 1990s.

While Sipe believes Klassen is making a "serious attempt to meet a problem of significant proportions," he said restricting travel to prevent further abuse would work only if it entails "realistic and effective supervision."

"I would expect that the person's whereabouts are known and their responsibilities to be at certain places at certain times would be absolutely clear and recordable," he said.

He said having different restrictions on different people might be considered reasonable, but added, "I don't think travel to that cabin should be included in that."

Gerry Kaplan, president of Alpha Human Services, a sex-offender program in the Twin Cities, said participants often are allowed increased movement in the community as treatment progresses, but that courts usually set strict limits.

"I would tend not to have same level of confidence in a treatment system in which a church or some kind of closed system hears the problem, identifies the problem, addresses the problem, and then supposedly figures out what to do afterward," he said.

"I think a closed system has much more potential to mishandle cases based on personalities of the people involved."

There are 196 monks at St. John's, which is the largest Benedictine monastery in North America.

 
 

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