A Year after Son's Suicide, Parents Seek Change at St. John's
By Madeleine Baran
Minnesota Public Radio
December 18, 2015
|The Abbey Church, St. John's University Jeff Horwich | MPR News file|
It's been a year since Ben Spanier took his life.
His parents say his problems began 20 years earlier, when he was a student at St. John's Prep in Collegeville. They say their son wasn't the same after he began spending time with the Rev. Tom Andert, a prominent priest who was placed on leave earlier this year for a separate allegation of sexual misconduct.
The Spaniers say they're coming forward now because they want the culture at St. John's to change. Ben Spanier had attempted suicide before. His father, Eric, will never forget picking up the phone that night in 1994. On the other end of the line was the Rev. Tom Andert, the head of the boarding school at St. John's, where Ben was a junior.
"I answered the phone," Eric Spanier said. "He was calling from the emergency room in the hospital, so it was a shock."
He said he was relieved the priest was there to care for his son.
"I was extremely grateful," he said. "I mean, he was there and he was taking my place, and I was in Colorado. He was in Minnesota, at his bedside. So I was very appreciative for him being there, I expressed that. We really didn't have any reason to suspect there was a problem with Ben's relationship with the headmaster."
Ben's parents weren't sure at the time why he had tried to kill himself. Privately, though, as Ben would later tell his parents and others, he struggled with questions about his sexual identity. He worried his family would be embarrassed if they found out he was gay.
At the time, all his parents knew was that Ben seemed anxious and withdrawn. If anything, they welcomed some additional help and attention from a priest. Especially a priest of St. John's Abbey. The Spaniers had been connected to the abbey near St. Cloud, Minn., for generations.
"Culturally and socially and just environmentally, St. John's was a big part of our lives," Eric Spanier said.
Ben's grandfather had worked at the abbey for nearly 20 years. Ben's father, Eric, had gone to the abbey's prep school and the university.
The family trusted St. John's and Rev. Andert, Eric said.
In the months following Ben's suicide attempt, the Spaniers became such good friends with Andert that they invited him along on a family whitewater rafting vacation.
"You know, hindsight is 20/20, I guess," said Eric.
Ben's parents stayed in one hotel room. Ben and Andert stayed in another.
One night, Ben's parents woke up around 1 or 2 in the morning to the sound of their son beating on the door and yelling.
"Ben was in absolute hysterics," Eric said.
"He was afraid," said Ben's mother, Margaret. "He was, he could hardly, he couldn't talk."
"He ran into the room and jumped straight into the bed and he stayed in that bed between Margee and I for the rest of the night," Eric recalled. He described his son as "almost speechless. He was in shock." Ben wouldn't say what was wrong. The next day, his father caught him arguing with Andert.
"It's difficult to live with that, at this point," Eric said. "But I took Ben aside and said, 'Listen, Ben, you don't treat a priest that way. You have to treat them with some respect. He's your headmaster, and he's a priest, and he's a family friend, and don't do that.' So I was pretty hard on Ben."
To this day, Ben's parents don't know what happened in the hotel room 21 years ago.
Andert describes the trip differently. He declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement to MPR News sent via his attorney, Andert said nothing happened in that room "beyond my caressing Ben's forehead."
Andert, now 68, said he felt nervous about going whitewater rafting and that he "probably became a pest to Ben with my anxious chatter." He said Ben "asked if I minded if he went to sleep in his parents' room, and I responded, 'Of course not.' There is nothing more to the story than that."
That explanation is tough for Ben's mother Margaret to hear. "You don't cry because somebody is afraid to go whitewater rafting," she said.
At the time, though, Ben wouldn't say what was wrong.
The Spaniers had no way of knowing, back then, that St. John's Abbey was home to several monks who had been accused of sexually abusing children. In the years since, the abbey has faced lawsuits from abuse survivors who accused the abbey of failing to protect them from predatory priests. In 2013, amid the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Twin Cities, St. John's Abbey released a list of 18 monks it said "likely have offended against minors."
That fall, in 1994, Ben's parents received another upsetting phone call. Ben was in his senior year at St. John's. The phone call this time was from a couple who were close family friends.
They urged the Spaniers to get to St. Cloud right away. Something was wrong with Ben.
"He could hardly talk, and he was so ashamed," Margaret said.
According to Margaret, Ben told his parents that Andert had sometimes given him alcohol. He also said he was uncomfortable with Andert's affection.
Eric said Ben was reluctant to discuss details about time he spent with the priest.
"It wasn't what he said," Eric said. "It's what he avoided. He just wouldn't address it. It's like he was embarrassed ... It was an environment where you didn't challenge or question or even think of issues of, bad issues that the clergy was engaged in."
The Spaniers say they reported what Ben had told them to the head of St. John's Abbey at the time. They were surprised to find Abbot Timothy Kelly didn't seem all that concerned.
"We stand to leave," Eric recalled, "and the abbot pats Margee on the head and makes a comment to her that, 'Moms of students in this situation typically overreact — not to feel bad, you're like all the other moms, you overreact.'"
An abbey spokesperson later said the abbey investigated the family's complaint and found "no credible charges of sexual abuse." The spokesperson said Ben also met privately with Kelly at the time and that the teenager denied any sexual misconduct had taken place.
Ben never told his parents what happened in that meeting with Kelly. The abbot died in 2010. Years later, in correspondence with a friend, Ben mentioned the meeting and said he worried he'd ruined Andert's life.
Andert admits he did buy wine for Ben when they were at dinner. And he says he wrote letters to Ben as a teenager that could be misinterpreted. In those letters, obtained by MPR News, Andert told Ben he loved him and wished he could be his dad. He also asked the teenager to send a picture of himself.
Andert went on to become one of the top officials at St. John's Abbey. He was promoted to serve as head of the abbey's monastery. Meanwhile, Ben Spanier struggled.
When Ben was in his 20s, another priest from St. John's reached out to help. The Rev. Brennan Maiers met with Ben and arranged for him to receive therapy, paid for by the abbey.
Maiers also sent Ben emails, including one in 2007 that included a link to a music video on YouTube. The song was about a boy falling in love with another boy.
"I love a boy named Jesse, but Jesse doesn't love me back," the lyrics went. "He says he has a girl in Chelsea he wants so much."
It was, the priest told Ben in the email, a "very haunting song about two young men who can't quite speak or express their love."
Maiers had problems of his own. His name was later included on a list released by St. John's Abbey of monks who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
As Ben grew older, his mental health worsened. Although he went on to college and grad school, his parents say his anxiety made it hard for him to hold down jobs.
A few people who heard pieces of Ben's story urged him to sue the abbey, but Ben refused, telling them he didn't want to embarrass the school or his family. In his 30s, Ben moved back in with his parents, and received treatment for his anxiety. But it wasn't enough.
In December 2014, Ben Spanier killed himself in his bedroom. He was 38. He left behind a message.
"Ben's last words were written on a board, and it can be erased, and it slowly, slowly will come away, I'm sure," Margaret Spanier said. "But he said, 'Dear God please protect me and keep me safe.' Those were his last words."
She said it's hard to know how big a role her son's experiences at St. John's played in his mental health problems. She and her husband do believe that the same sense of loyalty that makes St. John's strong also makes it hard for students to come forward about misconduct and abuse. And they believe that culture needs to change so others don't experience pain like theirs.
Margaret said she and her husband "cry every day and think of the people who have never, ever been able to talk about it, their experiences. What a sad, sad situation."
The Spaniers said they have no plan to sue the school. What they want is for the head of St. John's Abbey — Abbot John Klassen — to open up to the community about the concerns and allegations involving Andert and other priests.
Andert has been on leave since August because of a separate allegation of sexual misconduct involving a former student at St. John's Prep. An abbey spokesperson said the investigation of that complaint continues.
Abbot Klassen declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through the spokesperson it wouldn't be appropriate.