Kin Suspect Letter Fueled Monk's Bid at Suicide

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register [Des Moines IA]
February 17, 2007

Copyright 2007, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company

An anonymous letter that threatened to expose Brother Patrick Harris as a child-murderer may have triggered the Des Moines monk's suicide attempt, his family believes.

"I saw and read the letter," said Holly Kruger of Dike, Harris' sister. "It threatened to go to the press and expose him if he didn't get out of Des Moines. The letter is what brought it all about; it brought everything back."

Harris, 63, was seriously injured Feb. 6 when he stepped in front of a train in Elkhorn, Neb. Harris survived because he lay down between the rails before the train struck him.

When police inquired about why he might want to harm himself, Harris' relatives confided a piece of his past.

In 1976, Harris, then known as Dallas Harris, was embroiled in a custody battle and divorce. He suffocated his 3-year-old daughter in Pine County, Minn., and then tried to commit suicide.

He pleaded guilty of second-degree murder and was sent to prison. He was released on parole in 1983.

Harris later joined the Benedictine religious order. He moved to Des Moines in 1995, where he became a member of St. Gabriel's monastery.

For the next dozen years, he devoted himself to helping the poor of Des Moines.

The Rev. Aquinas Nichols, prior of St. Gabriel's, said Harris had disclosed his crime to his superiors. He had repented for his past and had accepted a life of penance in reparation for what he had done in Minnesota, Nichols said.

But few people who knew Harris in Des Moines were aware of his past.

Then the letter arrived.

Harris showed the letter to Kruger, his sister. She said he was worried that the letter's writer was "out to get him."

"He thought he needed to leave Des Moines, although he liked it there," said Kruger. "He just kept reading the letter. He was very upset. I encouraged him to tear it up, and we threw it in the garbage. But it was already too late; the horse was out of the barn."

Harris talked to Aquinas, the St. Gabriel's prior, and to superiors at Mount Mary Abbey in Elkhorn about a new assignment.

Nichols said Harris was greatly distressed by the letter. He was assured by officials of the religious order that they would "find him a place where he could still contribute to the order and the church and find a certain sense of peace."

Harris also talked to Monsignor Frank Chiodo, the founder of the Des Moines monastery and now the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Des Moines. Harris was worried that disclosure of his crime would damage his ministry.

"He was heavily burdened before he left," Chiodo said. "But I felt there still was a future for him."

Nichols also believed Harris had come to terms with the letter. "He didn't show how disturbed he was, at least not to the degree that I would suspect he would do what he did," Nichols said.

Nichols said Harris has been discharged from the hospital and is continuing his recovery in a rehabilitation facility.

It's not known who mailed the letter. Nichols said the letter was written on plain paper. It bore no address of the sender. The letter, which remains in Harris' personnel file, was just signed "SNAP."

There was no explanation in the letter for those initials.

A national organization of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests is Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - a group that goes by the acronym SNAP.

But David Clohessy, the group's national director, said the letter was not one his organization wrote. SNAP was not aware of Harris until reporters began calling for comment on the day of the suicide attempt, said Clohessy, of St. Louis.

"We never have and never would send an anonymous letter," Clohessy said. "We've never even been accused of anything remotely like this."

Nichols said an anonymous letter is not a normal tactic of SNAP.

Nichols declined to make a copy of the letter public.

John Chambers of Des Moines, a SNAP member, said he was as shocked as anyone to learn of Harris' past.

"There are plenty of rumors going around about priests," Chambers said. "Brother Patrick would be one of the last that I think anyone would spread that kind of rumor about."

He added, "Considering the large number of damaged people in or sometimes affiliated with SNAP, I have never heard, nor got the feeling, they would resort to such tactics."

Harris told Kruger, his sister, that he was worried about becoming a target of SNAP.

He also told her that members of the group had targeted Richard Wagner, a former priest who was accused of child sexual abuse. Wagner was the subject of a SNAP leaflet campaign and a recent vigil on the fifth anniversary of the initial disclosures of the Catholic church's child sexual abuse scandal, Harris told his sister.

Harris had lived an exemplary life following his parole, said members of the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines, where Harris spent much time.

When he came to Des Moines 12 years ago, he met with Chiodo, who then was involved in the St. Gabriel's ministry.

"He came to me from Michigan and he told me his story," Chiodo said.

"I accepted him and embraced him and shed tears of joy that he had found his way," Chiodo said. "In recent years he felt it was all behind him. I'm glad his life wasn't taken."

Nichols said: "It is our judicial system and society at large that believes once a convicted person has paid his debt to society he is free to begin life again.

"It is the belief of our Catholic faith that we have a just, forgiving and merciful God. God's mercy requires that we admit our faults and repent our sins," Nichols said. "We believe in the hope of forgiveness."

Religion Editor Shirley Ragsdale can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or


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