Settlement may shed new light on alleged sexual abuse at St. John's Abbey

By Julie Nelson
May 5, 2015

Troy Bramlage holds a picture of himself as a young teen in the 70s.

Lloyd VanLeet comes forward with his story of being abused.

Lloyd VanLeet's letter alleging abuse.

Richard Sipe studied to be a monk at St. John's Abbey.

Father Allen Tarlton was accused of sexual abuse.

Father Fran Hoefgen has been charged with the rape of an altar boy.

[with video]

One former Benedictine monk claims during his time there, officials at St. John's Abbey turned a blind eye to sexual abuse and were part of a "pattern" of covering up for abusive monks.

"I contend that St. John's produces, protects, fosters this kind of behavior," says Richard Sipe.

Sipe, who attended St. John's and once served as a consultant on a task force on sexual abuse at St. John's Abbey, claims sexual misconduct was a systemic problem.

His allegations come on the heels of a settlement last week in the case of Troy Bramlage, who sued St. John's Abbey for failing to protect him from sexual abuse by Father Allen Tarlton, back in the 1970s.

"Take your life back," said Bramlage at a news conference about the settlement. "Don't stay in the dark. The way we win is to bring this to light."

Bramlage alleged he was molested when he was just 14, by his English teacher at St. John's Preparatory School.

The settlement, according to Bramlage's attorney Jeff Anderson, also requires St. John's Abbey to release the files of 18 other monks accused of sexually abusing children.

For years, most allegations of abuse by monks from St John's Abbey have been settled quietly. But, in addition to the files to be released in the Bramlage settlement, some of the other claims may soon be heard for the first time in open court.

Later this month, former St. John's priest, Father Fran Hoefgen, is scheduled to stand trial on criminal charges he denies. He is alleged to have repeatedly raped an altar boy while assigned to a parish in Dakota County.

On the eve of that trial, we wanted to know more about the largely secret system at St. John's Abbey that allegedly allowed abuse to continue even after it was reported. So, we sat down with a man who claims he was abused by yet another priest.

Suffering in silence Coming forward to heal

"The only reason I'm doing this is to let people know that there's, you know, there's help," says Lloyd VanVleet.

For years, he says, he suffered in silence.

"Nobody ever knew. I never told a soul – until that letter," he says.

As part of his "new beginning" in Alcoholics Anonymous years later, VanVleet wrote a letter describing how the priest from St. John's Abbey seduced him starting when he was just twelve.

"Then he just kind of started touching my leg and said, 'Do you mind if I take pictures of you?"

It began, he says, when "Father Robert" showed him a collection of nude photos of other young boys and offered him money if he'd pose too.

"And then once I was naked and he started taking pictures, it just progressed into – you know – more," he said.

And, he says, it didn't stop with just that priest.

"It progressed. You know, he started bringing me to other priests. You know, it's just part of my existence at that time then," he remembers.

"What path did it set you on, as a 12-year-old boy?" asked KARE 11's Julie Nelson, who recently interviewed VanVleet.

"I quit being a kid. I started to cover my life up," he replied.

Coping, he says, with alcohol and eventually drugs.

"You cross every line, you know, that your mom every taught you," said VanVleet.

"And the person who was supposed to be teaching you the lines?" Nelson asked.

"Became my worst enemy," he replied. "He's the one who taught me hell, not heaven."

VanVleet's letter was sent to the Archdiocese in St. Paul where "Father Robert" was on temporary assignment, and was then forwarded to officials at St. John's Abbey.

The Abbey is a separate church institution, the largest Benedictine monastery in North America.

The Abbey is on the same campus as St. John's University and St. John's Preparatory School where young and old are footsteps away. In addition, St. John's priests are often assigned to local parishes.

VanVleet's alleged abuser, Father Robert Blumeyer, is now dead. After VanVleet came forward, St. John's Abbey named him to a list of priests credibly accused of abuse.

At the time, the Abbot at St. John's was quoted as saying he didn't know, "of any other allegations of abuse." According to internal St. John's documents we viewed, that is not true.

Allegations ignored

In a letter written in 1976, more than two decades before VanVleet came forward, Monsignor Arthur Durand describes a complaint from a mother who says the same Father Robert Blumeyer took her son "into the rectory" and persuaded him to "remove his clothes" and give him a massage which led to more.

In spite of that complaint, records show that the Abbot at St. John's took Father Blumeyer's word when he denied the incident.

So, St. John's continued to assign Blumeyer to local Minnesota parishes in Hastings, Avon and Farming.

Richard Sipe says he saw similar cases first hand when he was at St. John's, when he was on the task force.

"I would report it to the Abbot," Sipe says. "And the Abbot would say, 'No, no, maybe he has a little bit of an alcohol problem. No, no. I know Father so and so, he wouldn't do that."

Sipe studied at St. John's, became a monk there, and later was trained to counsel troubled priests.

He says most priests are honorable men, but they too, have sexual urges.

Sipe eventually left the priesthood and developed a troubling theory about why priest misconduct is too often ignored.

"They were covering up all their own behaviors – and behaviors on this very high level," says Sipe, who has authored books on celibacy and priests. Sipe believes half of Catholic priests violate their vows.

A study commissioned by the church itself included a chart showing the percentage of priests ordained between 1960 and 1985 who were accused of having sexual contact with minors. The average was more than 6 percent.

Sipe claims some church officials haven't blown the whistle on abuse because they have embarrassing secrets themselves, even if they don't always involve children.

"I became so aware that the skeletons in their own closet, and on this high level, kept the system going," claims Sipe.

Father Allen Tarlton who was at the center of the case settled last week actually wrote about his sexual experiences with a "senior cleric" at St. John's Abbey and of acting out sexually with students. He was sent away for treatment, but was allowed to return to St. John's where he allegedly molested Troy Bramlage.

"The guilt and the shame really belongs to the people who hid this from us," said Bramlage.

Father Fran Hoefgen, the St. John's priest facing criminal charges later this month, had been previously accused of sexual misconduct before being assigned to the parish in Hastings, MN, where he allegedly raped an altar boy.

He signed a statement to police in Cold Spring, MN back in 1984, admitting he had sexual contact with a teenage boy. Instead of facing charges, he was sent away for treatment. Records show officials at St. John's Abbey allowed Father Fran to return, and to be assigned to a new parish.

"They sent them out to these small little communities knowing full well that they were pedophiles," said VanVleet.

Cancerous culture

The abuse survivor and the former Abbey insider both say there is a cancerous culture that must finally be acknowledged – and changed.

"There is a systematic cancer and destructiveness within the fiber of St. John's," says Sipe. "And I say that with great pain and sadness, but it's the truth."

In a statement, St. John's says, "In contrast to Mr. Sipe's frequent claims, there are no credible allegations that any case of misconduct involving minors and a monk from the Abbey has occurred in the past two decades or longer."

An Abbey spokesman also said, "St. John's will continue to address the wrongs that were done in the past, and will continue to pray for all survivors of sexual abuse…we too, will be ever vigilant in our efforts to safeguard minors and all entrusted to our care."

The Abbey also released this list of commonly asked questions about the steps they've taken to eliminate abuse.


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