Investigators: Saint John’s Monks: Restricted, Really?

Fox 9
July 29, 2010

[with video]

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. - In 2002, the head of St. John's Abbey told the public monks, who were accused of sexual misconduct, they would live under restrictions. Many thought it was a sort of house arrest, but that was not the case. The FOX 9 Investigators found just how easy it is for a so called restricted monk to leave St. John's and befriend a family, a family that didn't initially know about the monk's restrictions because St. John's had not made his name public.

A nap in a popular park filled with kids, an Eagle Scout ceremony, a cozy picture on the couch. Brother Jim Phillips has worked his way into the lives of a metro area family. A family we are not identifying to protect their privacy.

A man who knows the family well says, “I knew something had to be done. I didn't want these children to be hurt by this man in any way.”

Eric Evander is worried about Brother Phillips’ relationship with a woman in the family because it gives him access to her grandchildren, including a boy with autism. Brother Phillips is among the dozen or so St. John's priests and monks with credible allegations of sexual misconduct.

Pat Marker is a victims’ advocate. He says, “There's danger out there and there's danger coming from Collegeville.”

Marker knows all about Collegeville and the monks living there. It's a place unlike any other in Minnesota. The sprawling campus includes St. John's University. In the summer young people come from all over the world for events.

There is a beach where kids swim, there is St. John's prep school where teenaged boys live in a dorm and right in the middle is the Monastery where the monks live including at least a dozen the Abbey acknowledges sexually molested an untold number of young people. It's at that prep school Brother Phillips met his two accusers in the late 1970's.

Andrew Butler was one of the accusers. He attended the prep school after his mother died. He told the FOX 9 Investigators, “He’d taken a strong and peculiar interest in me very early on. He would tousle my hair and frequently touch me on the shoulder or put his hand on my back. Within about four weeks it had progressed to something of a much more sexual nature. He was having me come to his private room on a weekly basis throughout that academic year.

Brother Phillips denies he molested his accusers from the 70's but St. John's Abbey confirms Brother Phillips lives at the Abbey under what's called a safety plan.

Marker knows all about the safety plan, “I know what conditions these men live under and it is completely different than what the public believes.”

Marker says the public's belief was formed in 2002 when Abbot John Klassen made a public apology for the sexual abuse.

At the time Abbot Klassen said, “I offer you my deepest and most sincere apology.”

His letter of apology goes on to say, “I am deeply sorry that some members of St. John’s monastic community have violated such a fundamental part of our commitment by engaging in abusive sexual behavior with people in our schools and parishes.”

Klassen said in his statement, “The monks who have sexually abused young persons or vulnerable adults are not allowed to have pastoral or unsupervised social contact with our students or other young persons and he said Monks under restriction could not travel without his permission.”

Like so many of us, Eric Evander understood the Monks would be under a sort of house arrest. He says, “Abbot Klassen said they would be on restrictions. To me that means they would be restricted to monastic grounds.”

But the FOX 9 Investigators have learned the so called restrictions do not keep the restricted monks on the grounds. The safety plans allow them unescorted trips off campus.

Marker says, “The restrictions they're under allow a man like brother Jim Phillips to go to a restaurant to go to a home and visit with kids and grandkids and while he's been removed from ministry and restricted in some ways, he's had no problem in opening up other avenues.”

The FOX 9 Investigators watched as Brother Phillips ate lunch with his woman friend at a Denny's restaurant where kids come and go. The two then went to a nearby park, filled with kids of all ages. The woman carried a pillow in her trunk so Brother Phillips could take a nap.

The two then said goodbye and Phillips headed back to St. John's Abbey where remember he is a monk, a man who’s taken a vow of chastity, a man who the Abbot removed from public ministry after Andrew Butler's allegations came to his attention in 2002.

Butler says, “He should not be unaccompanied outside anywhere of the monastery.”

Butler is stunned the monks have so much freedom.

He provided the FOX 9 Investigators with an e-mail exchange he had with Abbot Klassen in 2007. The Abbot wrote that Butler's claims of abuse were valid and that Phillips safety plan puts in place safeguards against further sexual abuse or exploitation.

But when the FOX 9 Investigators told Butler what we had seen he said,

“It doesn't sound like there's any

meaningful safety plan in place.”

And there is more. In June, the daughter of the woman contacted Abbot Klassen to complain about Phillips contact with their family. The woman says she asked the Abbot to keep her name confidential but he didn't.

Evander says, “He revealed who this person was who had called the Monastery and that has caused some very deep wounds in this particular family wounds that may not ever be healed.”

Evander is a man of deep faith and a graduate of St. John's University.

He says, “The place is beautiful, there are good monks and good priests and professors and great students but there's this blight on the campus that doesn't ever seem to go away.”

He agreed to talk to the FOX 9 Investigators because of how Abbot Klassen responded to the family's concerns.

Evander says, “it would seem that nothing has changed since 2002 given the treatment of this person who called the monastery and was looking for some sort of help on this instead it seems like the monk was protected and that's not really what you would expect.”

Not only did the Abbot reveal who called to complain he did not demand Phillips stop seeing the woman. He left this voicemail for the woman’s daughter.

“What I did was I expressed your concern to brother Phillips about the intrusiveness of his relationship with your mother and I asked that he not be with her except in the presence of another monk, I hope I didn't err and cause undue anxiety or inappropriateness or difficulty for you in what I said.

Pat Marker says he also talked to the Abbot about the family's concerns

Marker says, “I told him one of his members was befriending a family that had a young boy and the family was worried about it. I said that was not restriction and he claimed it was restriction and it wasn't. He waffled on his answer as he has since the whole abuse scandal broke under his watch in 2002.

None of the restricted monks including Phillips ever faced criminal charges because the statute of limitations had run out. The Abbey says it provides more supervision of monks accused of sexual offenses than is provided for under Minnesota law.

You can read more about the allegations against the restricted monks on Marker's website called Behind the Pine Curtain. It's a website he wishes he could stop working on.

If the Abbey would do their job I wouldn’t have to have a website when the victims stop calling, I will stop working on it, but they haven't stopped calling.

The FOX 9 Investigators did leave a voicemail on Brother Phillips phone but he did not return our call.

According to a voicemail we listened to, the Abbot last weekend spoke personally with the older woman and told her exactly why Brother Phillips is living under restrictions.

Additional statement from Eric Evander

FOX 9 asked Eric Evander whether St. John's Abbey should publicly name all of the monks and priests on restriction. He said: “That would go a long way to being transparent in this matter which is really what the church has been doing in most dioceses including our own diocese of St. Paul Minneapolis. Our current Pope Benedict has taken many steps and our Archbishop Nienstedt has done so as well but unfortunately the monastery at St. John seems to be lagging behind that paradigm.”

E-mail responses from St. John’s

July 14, 2010

“We are unable to comment on issues related to Brother Jim Phillips who lives on a safety plan.”

July 22, 2010

“Any complaints from the public about the activities of a monk living under a safety plan are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. If it is deemed that a safety plan violation has occurred, corrective measures are taken.”


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