St. John's Troubled Abbey
By A.W. Richard Sipe
Behind the Pine Curtain
September 30, 2007
This letter was written September 30, 2007 to Lee Hanley, a public relations person at St. John's and an old friend. I had received numerous complaints about my alma mater from around the country. I wanted it to get to the current Abbot who had appeared to be dedicated to improving monastic behavior by setting up an External Review Board to work with the monastery to help young people be safe. I hoped it might stave off some problems. It did not. This and the following article is a personal dialogue.
You know that St. John's (or Collegeville) was my home since 1946, when I was 12 years old. It is for me, family. I have never lost my devotion and care for the reality that is St. John's. The college as it is today is not really part of my heart. It has changed and become so big, new, and wonderful according to the fond tradition of Fr. Mathew, Casper, Walter, Arno, Steve Humphry, Frawley and so many more that the "now" outstrips what I can keep up with. But I hold on to the old SJU of 1946—with the barns, the orchard, the pig farm, laundry, the blue goose, and the workmen. I say that without in any way putting down today. You can excuse an old man's nostalgia. I know that the SJU "spirit" continues and I know it will grow and prosper.
It is the Abbey that concerns me. I was a member for 18 years. These were my brothers and I continued an active association with parts of the institution until January 1996 when I taught my last course in the seminary. In 1992 I was asked to help with the part of problem of sex abuse that had become public. Abbot Jerome had put my name on a list that Bro Dietrich was assembling to work with Dr. Pat Carnes to look at the abuse allegations that bubbled up in the local press. Both of these men had deep concern for the problem of abuse of minors from their own experiences. I did not know about the abuse of students (criminal activity) and did not know most of the monk abusers who were named in the early 90s. I had known since 1970 that John Eidenschink had been sexually active with some of the monks and continued to do so after he became Abbot. Novice Master Cosmas Dahlheimer, I was told, used to kiss young monks on the lips, liked to suck on their ear lobes and played with their chest and belly hair. But I did not know before that time that he had abused children when he went to a parish assignment. (Later when I interviewed some of Cosmas' victims they described that exact behavior. Fr. Richard Eckroth was the assistant to Cosmas in the novitiate. I have interviewed enough of his alleged victims to be convinced of their veracity.) I also knew that these facts and many more were kept secret by authorities at St. John's. The inner life of the monastery was not the open concern of Abbot Timothy or Bro. Dietrich when they sponsored a group of experts to come to the campus to consult. Publicity and image were naturally a key concern for the institution(s) in the early 90s.
Abbot Jerome had talked to me frankly about the inner-institutional problems in 1987 and 88. His concern was the homosexual activity of some monks. Some of them espoused the theory that it was all right, and even beneficial, for monks to experiment sexually together—mutual masturbation and even anal intercourse were touted to further their necessary education and maturity. Jerome was certainly not homophobic and said that he judged that 40 percent of the community had a homosexual orientation. (This is low average for religious communities in the United States.) A number of the young candidates left the monastery after either being approached or initiated into this education.
We know that Michael Blecker, former Dean of the seminary and President of the College was actively homosexual and died of AIDS related causes. There was some talk about his inappropriate behavior at St. John's, but I have no validation that any took place there with minors.
The last time I was on the campus was three years ago, during the summer. I strolled the campus without any particular goal except to see the new additions and renew pleasant old memories. My path crossed with six monks. Five of them where men who had been alleged sexual abusers and I knew they were on "restriction." Two were accompanying groups that I presumed were visitors. Two were around the Guest master's office located in the vestibule of the old church. The other was just crossing campus. None spoke with me. A victim of abuse had reported to me that one of the priests giving tours had propositioned him several months before in the campus Pub. So much for a program of supervision and restriction. The one monk who spoke to me is an old friend sweating on a work gang taking out an old concrete walkway. Ora et Labora: an authentic expression of old St. John's.
Consider the remedy that the patron of church reform, Peter Damian, prescribed with what is happening at St. John's Abbey:
A cleric or monk who seduces youths or young boys or is found kissing or in any other impure situations is to be publicly flogged and lose his tonsure. When his hair has been shorn, his face is to be foully besmeared with spit and he is to be bound in iron chains. For six months he will languish in prison-like confinement and on three days of each week shall fast on barley bread in the evening. After this he will spend another six months under the custodial care of a spiritual elder, remaining in a segregated cell, giving himself to manual work and prayer, subject to vigils and prayers. He may go for walks but always under the custodial care of two spiritual brethren, and he shall never again associate with youths in private conversation nor in counseling them.
That may be crude and old, but it did address the seriousness with which the monks took this kind of behavior and the kind of lasting harm it inflicted on the victims and the monastery, too. Certainly the majority of monks in Collegeville are good men, moral and sound in the tradition many of us admire and want to hold on to. But St. John's has failed to follow through on a reform of sexual behaviors of its monks.
The appointment of Thomas Andert as Prior is an unwise move for the monastery and in the long run for the college too. He has a record of abusing at least one of his students when he was Headmaster of the Prep School. This is not secret, in spite of the fact that he has not yet been the object of litigation. This is not a question of forgiveness or whether or not he is a good man. Is he apt to be prior in both senses of the word—suited to the job, and/or likely to repeat something? It is the reality that sooner or later the headlines will proclaim: ST. JOHN'S APPOINTS SEX ABUSER SECOND IN COMMAND. And I guarantee you this is a distinct danger. The Abbey cannot blithely ignore the list of leaders of the community that have violated celibacy, some even in criminal ways.
I'm sending this letter to you because you will have to deal with the public fall out. I am not a member of the community and I cannot advise them in spite of my unfailing care for them as my family. I do trust that you will share this with Abbot John K at least.
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