Women Accuse Priest of Abuse
Two Women Say Their Lives Will Never Be Free of the Pain Caused by " Father Richard," Whom They Accuse of Sexually Abusing Them at a Northern Minnesota Cabin in the 1970s. He Has Denied Any Wrongdoing

By Warren Wolfe
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
May 9, 2002

They were supposed to be joyous getaways with a priest well known by their families, a man who loved the outdoors and enjoyed taking groups of six or seven children on weekend outings in the 1970s.

But two women say what they experienced at a northern Minnesota cabin were weekends of horror.

"I remember Father Richard got mad about something and we ran over to the neighbors," Helen Olson, 42, of Woodbury said Wednesday. "The woman and her boys wanted us to stay the night there, but we didn't. I was 11. Father Richard raped me that night."

Father Richard is the Rev. Richard Eckroth, 75, a monk at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., where he taught philosophy to students at St. John's University, was prefect at a residence hall and served as priest in two nearby parishes before he was transferred in 1977 to the abbey's Bahamas mission.

On Tuesday, Olson received a check for $10,000 from St. John's Abbot John Klassen, whom she told about her alleged abuse for the first time in January. He sent her $2,000 in April. The money, he said Wednesday, is to help with counseling and living costs.

An accompanying letter from the abbot said, "I know that this ordeal has been very hard for you and has taken a great deal of courage. I enclose $10,000 and I am hoping that this will be of help over the short haul."

Klassen said that the payments to Olson were not an admission that Eckroth is culpable, but "an acknowledgment that here is a person in great pain and great need."

Eckroth has denied any involvement with sexual abuse. Through an abbey spokesman, he declined Wednesday to talk with a reporter.

The Star Tribune is identifying the priest, who has not been charged with any crime, because he has been publicly identified by the abbot at St. John's Abbey, where his activities have been restricted since 1993 because of sex-abuse allegations; he was the focus of sexual-abuse lawsuits, and has been identified by the Stearns County sheriff as a suspect in the 1974 stabbing deaths of Mary Reker, 15, and her sister Susanne, 12, of St. Cloud.

The abbot said he has started investigating allegations of sexual abuse by Eckroth and is considering hiring an outside investigator to assist him.

From 1971 to 1976, Eckroth routinely took small groups of boys and girls _ children of friends who worked as St. John's, or children from nearby parishes _ to a cabin near Bemidji, Minn., for overnight visits, Klassen said.

The cabin on Swenson Lake is owned by St. John's Abbey as a place for vacations and retreats for the monks in the Benedictine monastery.

Twin Cities attorney Jeff Anderson said that he has represented at least six victims of abuse by priests at the abbey. He said that before 1994 he settled "a few in the several-hundred-thousand-dollar range." After 1994, he said he was forced to settle for what he described as small cash settlements around $25,000 because the statute of limitations had elapsed.

He said three of the smaller settlements were suits against Eckroth. "I'm embarrassed and sad to say I had to settle for that on the victims' behalf," Anderson said.

He said a particularly sad case involved Elizabeth Vessel and her family. The statute of limitations had run out on their case and he couldn't help them. "That whole family suffered one horrible tragedy after another," he said.

A victim's story

Elizabeth Vessel's voice is full of something beyond rage when she goes deep to dredge the memories of what she says was abuse by Eckroth.

"Psychological mutilation. Abuse by religious elders. I've carried these scars for so many years," she said from her home in a small town in northern Idaho, which she asked remain unnamed. Vessel, now 38, said she was sexually abused at least four times at the cabin between the ages of 7 and 11.

Weeks ago she was invited to fly back to Minnesota by Abbot Klassen to describe what she remembers. With great reservations, she said, she came and, with her father at her side, she told Klassen of a childhood ruined. Whether that talk will lead to a settlement for her and her family, she said she hasn't a clue.

"I know that I want full compensation for my family for what we've all suffered," she said.

She describes what she recalls as if it happened last week:

The fondling in the cabin sauna, then up in the musty loft. The knife at her throat while the priest from St. John's Abbey molested her and told her she would die if she ever talked about what he was doing to her. This from the man who'd taught her father philosophy when he was a student at the St. John's prep school.

She said she was at the cabin at least once with the Reker girls but can't remember them ever saying whether they'd been sexually abused by the priest.

"I can't tell you I witnessed any other children having the kind of contact he [Eckroth] had with me," Vessel said.

It wasn't until she was 28 that the secrets she'd carried finally came out and her family learned of her abuse, she said.

Several years earlier, her brother had described the sexual abuse he said he suffered at the hands of Eckroth. Now it was her.

"It made us scattered to the wind," she said. Those experiences had crippled a family, Vessel said, because the children subconsciously felt threatened if they talked to authorities, fearing that their father would lose his job as a sales rep and editor at the abbey's Liturgical Press.

"As kids we grew up thinking priests were God, people we were only to respect," she said. "We were only to obey them."

The priest was the only adult at the cabin, a trusted figure.

Vessel said the strongest threads of memory center on what took place in the sauna and the loft.

"In the sauna, I was laying on the top shelf and he was rubbing my backside with his hands _ of course, he'd instructed us all to be naked, and he penetrated me with his hand," she recalled. "I don't remember leaving the sauna, I don't remember if that was the end of the abuse."

The most horrific of her memories in the cabin, she said, was an attack that took place while playing spin the bottle one evening after dinner.

When Vessel won, she said the priest took her to a chest full of clothing, men's shirts and T-shirts, and odd garments described to her as costumes. She was supposed to choose the kind of clothes she wanted and then climb up to the loft.

"He brought me to the top of the ladder. I remember specifically his breath on the back of my knees," she said. The smell of leaves outside and old smells inside the loft filled her nose _ "like a place that hadn't been swept out or washed out."

"He stripped me naked with the intention of putting on this costume and while he was doing that he started cussing in my ear. . . . He had a knife to my throat _ silver knife _ I'd never seen it before and never again."

She said she felt that she might die. "What I do remember is him saying, 'I will kill you if you tell anybody.'

"And then he penetrated me again with his hand."

She didn't tell her parents. But after Ed Vessel's son tried to commit suicide in 1978, allegations that the son had been abused by Eckroth surfaced, said Ed Vessel, now 63. He said he immediately took his concerns to social workers and doctors, asking them to tell the Stearns County sheriff. He also said he talked to a retired abbot and several years later went to the sheriff. He said his questions went unanswered.

Elizabeth Vessel said: "My dad was not clear enough at the time to wheel around on a dime and go, 'Oh, my God, my daughters were up there, too; what happened to my daughters?' That happened years and years later when we came to him."

Later, she told him what she remembered of being abused and he talked with officials then, too, Ed Vessel said.

"It was always, 'You have our apology . . . profound and sincere and deep' and every other adjective you can put with it," he said.

Meeting with Weaver

Three years ago, Elizabeth and Ed Vessel and several supporters met with Minnesota Public Safety Director Charlie Weaver and state Planning Director Dean Barkley to discuss her allegations and some other cases.

On Wednesday, Weaver recalled the session as a "weird meeting" filled with allegations of corruption and a grand coverup. He said he didn't have a clear recollection of the issues surrounding the St. John's case.

James Kostreba, who is the current Stearns County sheriff, said Wednesday that his office isn't investigating either the Vessel or Olson cases.

Klassen said that since he became abbot 17 months ago, he has met with the Vessel family and with Helen Olson and three or four others who have alleged they were abused by priests from the abbey.

"They have been wrenching experiences, listening to their stories about abuse from men who are my brothers," he said.

Eckroth and 12 other monks accused of sexual abuse live at the abbey under restrictions imposed by previous abbots, limiting where they may go and who they may see. Seven, including former Abbot John Eidenschink _ abbot from 1971 to 1979 _ have admitted abuse, Klassen said. Eckroth and another have not. The other four men were involved with Internet pornography or incidents not involving other people, Klassen said.

Eidenschink transferred Eckroth to the Bahamas in 1977. Klassen said Wednesday that he asked the former abbot whether the transfer had anything to do with allegations of sexual abuse, "and he told me that they didn't, that he didn't know of any allegations at that time." Klassen said he has not asked Eidenschink if anyone ever came to him with allegations against Eckroth.

Olson said she went to Klassen in January after she no longer could work because of the stress.

"I've been in hospitals six or eight times, starting when I was 17 and suicidal," she said. She grew up in St. Joseph, Minn., a few miles from the abbey and was friends with the Vessels and other children taken to the cabin by Eckroth.

"I've got a good counselor now. I think I'm getting some help. But I'm in debt and I can't work, not yet," she said. She has been a medical records secretary and a day-care worker.

The $10,000 will help her with some bills and living costs for a few months. "Maybe by then I'll be able to work again, at least part-time," she said.

Sitting in his kitchen Wednesday, Ed Vessel said he and other parents feel guilt for entrusting their children to the priest, sending them on trips alone with him into the woods.

"I'm the father, the protector, the slayer of things under her bed," Vessel said as tears fell. "One of us [parents] should have gone along."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.