Abbey Let Priest Keep Post after Allegation
St. John's Did Not Remove Him until Years Later, after Two More Abuse Accusations
By Warren Wolfe
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
May 14, 2002
St. John's Abbey was told in the late 1980s that the Rev. Richard Eckroth had allegedly sexually abused a boy years earlier.
But officials at the Collegeville abbey allowed him to continue working as a parish priest in the Bahamas for at least six more years, according to records obtained by an attorney who settled a lawsuit with the abbey in 1995.
It was not until 1993, when allegations surfaced that Eckroth had raped two boys when they were ages 7 or 8, that then-Abbot Timothy Kelly ordered Eckroth back to the United States for a psychiatric evaluation.
Despite a recommendation that the abbey not allow Eckroth to associate privately with minors, the priest was allowed to travel periodically without supervision. He returned to the Bahamas for a visit in July 1997 and continued to use the abbey's cabin near Bemidji, where much of the alleged abuse took place during the 1970s.
Kelly could not be reached for comment Monday. Eckroth also could not be reached, but he previously has denied the allegations.
The Catholic church's failure to restrict the activities of priests after abuse is alleged has become the subject of litigation across the country.
In some cases, bishops have been accused of allowing priests to serve parishes and work freely with young people after officials became aware of such allegations.
Eckroth and eight other priests accused of sexually abusing young people live at the abbey in Collegeville, near St. Cloud, Minn., under restrictions on whom they may see and where they may go.
He and one other priest have denied any sexual abuse, but all nine have accepted the restrictions, said current Abbot John Klassen.
From 1977 to 1993, Eckroth 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 supervised construction of a new church on Bimini.
A medical doctor, a therapist and a clinical services director who examined Eckroth during a three-month treatment period in 1994 urged the abbey to use caution with any further assignments for the priest because it found "substantial evidence that Father Eckroth has been sexually inappropriate with minors."
In a May 1994 letter to Kelly, the experts at St. Luke Institute, a Suitland, Md., clinic that treats priests with sexual disorders, urged caution because Eckroth inappropriately had taken nude saunas with young boys.
The letter stated, in part, that "it would be wise to avoid risks by making certain that Father Eckroth is not assigned to work with any youth, and is specifically prohibited from assuming any role with youth or associating privately with minors."
At St. Luke's, he was diagnosed with a sexual disorder and a personality disorder, according to its 1993 medical report, which preceded the letter to Kelly.
Eckroth's therapy had been scheduled to last about seven months. But the experts told Kelly that they were terminating therapy after nearly three months "when it was determined that there was essentially no change regarding the psychosexual issues for which he was admitted into treatment."
The Star Tribune obtained the St. Luke's report from St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who filed lawsuits in 1994 against Eckroth and the abbey on behalf of the two men who said the priest abused them when they were boys.
The lawsuits were settled out of court in June 1995.
The Star Tribune has identified Eckroth and several other priests accused of sexual abuse because their names were made public in lawsuits or by Klassen.
While being evaluated, Eckroth admitted that he would bring boys into the cabin and that he and the boys often would be naked. Massages then took place, the priest said, and he acknowledged that "he may have touched the buttocks of some of these boys," the report stated.
"His admitted behavior with the male minors he brought into the sauna suggests that he was touching them inappropriately and allowing them to touch him in the same way," the report stated. "The sexual nature of these physical intimacies cannot be overlooked."
During his evaluation and therapy, Eckroth acknowledged that another allegation of sexual abuse against him had surfaced six or seven years earlier, the report said. "Father Eckroth states that the Abbot at the time spoke with the father and with the young man about the incident. . . . Father Eckroth was not able to remember the details of the allegation."
In response to a 1994 Anderson lawsuit demanding documents in the case, Eckroth turned over 13 pages of handwritten notes, listing the names of many youths who went on trips to the cabin in the 1970s.
The names of at least four people who have claimed to have been sexually abused by Eckroth at the cabin appear on Eckroth's lists. Also listed were Mary Reker, 15, and her sister, Susanne, 12, who were killed on Labor Day 1974. Authorities have identified Eckroth as one of several suspects in that case.
Eckroth's brother, Charles Eckroth of St. Joseph, Minn., said in an interview that he spoke with his brother Monday and that the priest again denied all accusations.
Charles Eckroth said his brother told him several years ago that the experts at St. Luke Institute "didn't find that he was likely to be guilty of that charge."
That initial sexual-abuse allegation against Eckroth came in 1986 or 1987 to then-abbot Jerome Theisen, who died in 1995. But Eckroth wasn't the first priest Theisen was warned about.
Other cases cited
In 1979, Theisen learned about an allegation that the Rev. Allen Tarlton had sexual contact that year with a student from St. John's Prep School, Theisen said in a deposition. Theisen said he sent the priest to treatment. (The prep school, for students in grades 7 through 12, is located on the abbey grounds, as is St. John's University.)
But three years later, Tarlton was teaching English and counseling students at the school when another student claimed to have been abused, according to a lawsuit filed in Stearns County District Court.
Theisen gave the testimony in a September 1993 deposition for the suit, which alleged that Tarlton abused the student at least three times between September and November 1982. Tarlton denied the allegations, and Judge Vicki Landwehr dismissed the suit, finding that the statute of limitations had run out.
In her dismissal order, Landwehr found that Tarlton and the student had engaged in sexual contact at least once in the fall of 1982, according to court records.
Tarlton, now 74, was removed from teaching duties after the suit was settled, and since has admitted that abuse took place, Abbot Klassen has said.
Tarlton also has been permitted to travel. In October 2000, he attended the beatification of a St. John's benefactor in Rome.
Theisen may have known about abuse allegations against Eckroth as early as 1982, when Ed Vessel of Cold Spring claims to have met formally with the abbot on the matter. Vessel testified in a January 1995 deposition that he and his brother met with Theisen for more than an hour in July 1982 to tell Theisen that he suspected Eckroth of sexual contact with his son and others.
"I believe I told him that I believed that this man had made sexual contact with my son that I would call abusive," Vessel testified in the deposition.
It is not clear what actions Theisen took in dealing with the sexual-abuse allegation against Eckroth in about 1986 or 1987. However, it is clear that Eckroth, who had been assigned to the Bahamas in 1977, was allowed to remain there until 1993.
Theisen resigned as bishop in 1992 and was elected Abbot Primate of all Benedictine monks and nuns worldwide.
Kelly retired as abbot in November 2000 and now serves as president of the American-Cassinese Congregation, a confederation of 21 autonomous Benedictine monasteries in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
CORRECTION-DATE: May 15, 2002
This article misidentified Jerome Theisen as a bishop in 1992 when he was elected abbott primate of all Benedictine monks and nuns worldwide. He was an abbott.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.