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  St. John's Abbey Looks at a Lawsuit

By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
June 6, 2002

Two men who say monks abused them as teenagers are suing St. John's Abbey. Their case, filed in St. Cloud, names two individual monks and the entire Benedictine monastic order as defendants. The suit claims St. John's has been concealing sexual abuse for decades. The Abbey says its policies and culture have evolved over the years, but the safety of young people has long been its highest priority.

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Thirty-seven-year-old Bill Quenroe stood on the steps of the Stearns County Courthouse and talked in general terms about an encounter that still leaves him shaken more than 20 years later.

"You could call it abuse or you could call it rape," Quenroe said, "but I was victimized by three priests up there, one being Father Dunston Moorse."

Quenroe was a student at St. John's Preparatory School, a private school run by the Abbey. Quenroe says he was in 10th or 11th grade when he was sexually violated by Father Moorse, who was a teacher there at the time.

Bill Quenroe now lives in Minneapolis. He first approached the Abbey about his abuse in 1995.
Photo by Jeff Horwich

According to the civil complaint filed on behalf of Quenroe and another anonymous defendant, Moorse has a long and disturbing file at St. John's. There are allegations of possible abuse from 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986. The anonymous plaintiff also claims to have been abused by a second monk, Father Allen Tarlton. Both men were already known to be living under restrictions at the Abbey.

The lawsuit does not yet ask for specific compensation. Quenroe says it's about changing the culture at St. John's and preventing future tragedies.

The Abbey Church at St. John's

"I think that there's some healing that will happen for all of us, but I think the biggest thing is that it doesn't happen to another kid out there," Quenroe said. "As long as the secret is kept silent, these guys can keep doing it."

The statute of limitations has run out on both cases. Under Minnesota law that happens when victims turn 25. Previous cases against St. John's have failed to clear this hurdle. But Quenroe's lawyer has a strategy for that. Jeff Anderson says St. John's tried to cover up the crimes and created a climate where victims could not come forward. He says that renders the statute of limitations irrelevant.

Attorney Jeff Anderson
Photo by Jeff Horwich

"Why didn't they go to these men, why didn't they go to the public, why didn't they warn the rest of us?" said Anderson. "Why didn't they go to the police? And the answer to all those questions is the same: They have chosen to protect themselves and their own public image. Maybe now the healing can begin."

The two monk defendants were not available for comment. A St. John's spokesman says they often have no choice but to deal with such abusers internally. Father William Skudlarek says if the Abbey finds out about abuse within the statute of limitations, it will turn the case over to law enforcement. But victims almost always come forward too late, and the Abbey must resolve the situation itself.

Current St. John's Abbot John Klassen

The Abbey pays victims' counseling costs and sometimes other living costs as well. Skudlarek says the offending priest or monk can expect a sequestered and closely monitored life, far away from anyone they might be tempted to hurt. He describes it as, "therapy, restrictions of pastoral ministry, work, social contact, and an ongoing aftercare treatment, both spiritual and psychological."

Attorney Jeff Anderson has another complaint. He says the Abbey coerces victims into signing confidentiality agreements that prevent them from talking about their abuse.

Father Skudlarek says that's not true. He says when victims receive compensation from the Abbey, they only agree that the money from St. John's won't serve as proof of guilt in court. Skudlarek says nothing keeps victims from pursuing legal action and talking about their case with whomever they like.

Skudlarek says coming to the Abbey's open door does not close any others.

"The abbot has made very clear that he continues to do everything he can to devote himself single-heartedly to reaching out to anybody who may have had anything happen in this area," Skudlarek said, "and to urge them to come forward and that they will be listened to, and that they will be responded to in any way that we can that will help with their healing."

Still, Skudlarek admits the culture and policies at St. John's have evolved somewhat over the past two decades. The way some things were handled in the past might not be the way they would handle them now.

Contact: jhorwich@mpr.org

 
 

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