Behind the Pine Curtain
Feelings of Betrayal Cut Deep
By Pam Louwagie
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
September 29, 2002
From baptism to first communion to weddings, Ray and Arlene Vogel marked their family's milestones through their faith.
It defined the life they created in the house across the street from St. Augustine's Catholic Church in St. Cloud.
That lifelong devotion makes the betrayal they now feel all the more bitter.
Like families around the country who have been victimized by priests, the Vogels have found that their faith has been shaken, their rituals are less comforting and their church no longer is a sanctuary.
Nothing closer to God
Their faith had been built over a lifetime.
Ray spent his free time volunteering at area Catholic churches and schools and at St. John's Abbey in nearby Collegeville, where he worked in the paint shop. On Sundays, priests sat in a place of honor at their dinner table.
One Thanksgiving Day, the family postponed the turkey dinner until Ray was finished painting a monk's room at the abbey.
"He devoted his whole life to St. John's," Arlene said. "St. John's came before our family." She took a job there, too, after the kids were in school.
The Vogels taught their six children _ four boys, two girls _ the same reverence.
Arlene remembers hemming a cassock so that 5-year-old Allen could serve as an altar boy _ there was no cassock short enough for the child. When a St. Augustine's priest needed a substitute altar boy for a mass, he only had to whistle out the rectory window and Allen and his brothers would come running.
The four little boys grew up revering priests; they were told there was nothing closer to God.
One St. Augustine's priest, the Rev. Cosmas Dahlheimer, took a special interest in Allen, nicknaming him "professor" because of the glasses he wore. Allen was filled with potential, the priest told him. God might one day call upon him to become a priest _ if he was good and did what he was told.
'That's really rude'
As their children grew older, Ray and Arlene noticed that some of their sons seemed troubled.
Allen and his little brother used to run and hide when Dahlheimer pulled into the driveway when Ray and Arlene were at work.
"You guys, that's really rude," a frustrated mother told her sons.
Allen grew into a restless teenager. He was hospitalized for depression. When he was released, he stunned his parents by refusing to go back to his Catholic high school and turning away from the church.
His older brother John graduated from a Catholic high school but never seemed to find peace, moving 21 times in 13 years and going through several relationships.
"I gotta go somewhere where no one knows me and I don't know them," he told a psychiatrist years later. "I just don't trust anybody."
Then, about 10 years ago, Allen and a counselor started piecing together what had happened nearly 20 years earlier.
In late 1992, Ray was working in a shop on their farm near St. Joseph when Allen walked in with agony on his face.
"Dad, I'm glad you're here alone," Allen told him. "I have to tell you something that you probably aren't going to believe."
Father Cosmas had abused him when he was a little boy in the early 1970s, he said, the words difficult to utter.
It had started with Dahlheimer complimenting him when they were alone together, Allen said _ in the sacristy, in the priest's room and in his car. Dahlheimer told Allen that he would be an important person in the church and that Dahlheimer would guide him. Then it became sexual, with Dahlheimer exposing himself and masturbating.
"He told me this was how to become a man in the church and he would help me . . . that I was special," Allen told lawyers years later.
When Ray first learned of the abuse, he was speechless. Finally, he said, "It's not easy, but you have to know someone who does this is a sick person. You have to pray for people like that."
But Allen's revelation was only the beginning.
A few months later, their youngest son revealed that Dahlheimer had abused him, too. Months after that, Allen's brother John said the Rev. Richard Eckroth had abused him when he went with a group of children to the abbey's cabin near Bemidji.
Eckroth and Dahlheimer have denied allegations of abuse, but the abbey has put them on restriction for what it says is credible evidence of sexual misconduct.
"I feel so gravely bad," Ray said recently, tears in his eyes. "For one child to ever suffer _ that is the most horrible thing I can ever think of."
For three to suffer was unthinkable.
The boys had reasons why they hadn't told of the abuse when it first happened, they said. They didn't understand what it meant, they didn't think they'd be believed and they were afraid of what would happen to the family.
Therapists who specialize in clergy sex abuse say it's not uncommon for children from deeply religious families to be targeted.
"What made them vulnerable was their faith and trust, as well as that of their parents," said Walter Bera, a Minneapolis therapist who studies clergy abuse. He doesn't know the Vogel family but was speaking in general terms. "It's a tragic betrayal of sincere belief."
Allen said Dahlheimer made the abuse seem normal. "I wondered whether this was part of religion," he said in court documents. "I remember thinking of priests as being God to me at the time."
In a deposition in 1994, Dahlheimer said he remembered calling Allen "professor" but said the boy hadn't served at St. Augustine's because he was too young.
Abbot John Klassen said Dahlheimer now suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
The stories that three of their sons had been abused sent Arlene and Ray Vogel into chaos.
Eventually, each of the three sons sued the abbey. Each settled his case for an undisclosed amount of money.
As their children were negotiating with the abbey, Ray and Arlene left their jobs at St. John's; Ray left after nearly 30 years because of a heart condition that his family believes was exacerbated by stress. Arlene left after nearly 20 because Ray couldn't bear to have her work there anymore. They moved away from the parish.
Arlene said she has lost her faith in the Catholic Church. "It just shook your very being," she said. "Everything you've ever believed in or taught your children was gone."
Ray takes a slightly more tempered view. He said he believes the priests who abused his sons were forsaking their position next to God but added that he still believes in the church.
Now Arlene faces a struggle each Sunday about whether to attend church. She feels hypocritical if she goes, but the catechism lessons embedded in her soul make her feel guilty if she doesn't.
Sometimes she goes to mass, sometimes she goes to nondenominational services. "You just don't know where you belong," she said.
Both said they still believe that most priests are honorable men trying to do God's work. But when Arlene is at mass, she can't help but cast a suspicious eye on the man behind the altar.
"I look up . . . and think, 'Are you one of them, too?' " she said.
Ray is upset with how previous abbey leaders handled his sons' cases, but he believes that Abbot Klassen is now trying to do the right thing in addressing the problems of abuse.
Still, the feelings of betrayal cut deep.
"Since I've known about this . . . I haven't had one free day or night without it," Ray Vogel said. "I know one day the anguish and pain will end, but it won't be here. It'll be when almighty God makes that call. . . .
"The day my wife and children take me to the cemetery, that's where my agony will end."
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