Admission of Evidence of Abuse Not Good Enough for Some Victims

By Chris Williams
Associated Press State & Local Wire
May 11, 2002

John Vogel can't forget the nights when his parish priest molested him at a secluded cabin near Bemidji in the 1970s. He also can't forget St. John's Abbey in Collegeville spent years denying it.

That's why Vogel said he was surprised when Abbot John Klassen admitted earlier this month that there was credible evidence of sexual misconduct by 13 Benedictine monks and priests, including Vogel's former priest, at the abbey.

Vogel said Klassen's admission was nothing more than a good start. "Sequestering them in a dorm room at the abbey is not good enough," he said. "No one should be above the law."

Vogel and others who claim abuse applauded Klassen's recent actions, but said the new openness has not gone far enough. They want investigations, more money for therapy and for the abbey to release victims from confidentiality agreements.

Klassen has said the 13 monks and priests have been restricted to responsibilities that limit their contact with the public. Two of them have denied any wrongdoing; the others have admitted some form of sexual indiscretion.

One of the two is the Rev. Richard Eckroth, 75, the man Vogel and at least two women have publicly said molested them at a cabin on Swenson Lake. Eckroth has denied the allegations. He has refused repeated requests for interviews.

Abbey spokesman Michael Hemmesch said most people who have settled with St. John's are free to talk about the facts of their cases, but they can't talk about the settlement amounts. The exceptions are two people who settled complaints against former Abbot John Eidenschink.

Hemmesch said he didn't know how many claims the abbey has settled over the years. He said the restrictions on the movements of the monks and priests have been in place for "quite some time." The exact length depended on the case.

Twin Cities lawyer Jeff Anderson said he has represented about a dozen people who claimed sexual abuse by five monks or priests at the abbey over the years. He described hardball tactics by the abbey in responding to claims.

"They forced them into insulting and degrading settlements of their cases while they denied the abuse had occurred while protecting the predator monk and themselves," he said.

Anderson said Klassen should open the process and release all the abuse victims from their confidentiality agreements, including the two that prevented victims from telling their stories.

"They kept the secret on Eidenschink under wraps for 20 years," he said. "There were at least two victims that I know of that they made secret confidential settlements with."

He said he won some large settlements from the abbey before 1994, but after that the statute of limitations on alleged abuse in the 1970s had run out. Later cases were settled for much less. "I have been an utter failure for these survivors," he said.

Vogel, 38, who now lives near Dallas, was one of Anderson's clients. He decided to come forward after a year of therapy, which began as his marriage failed. He said the abbey helped pay for treatment, until the Vogel family sued in 1994.

The family alleged that decades before, Eckroth molested John Vogel at the cabin and that another priest had molested one of Vogel's brothers. The abbey settled the case without admitting abuse occurred. John Vogel said he got about $2,000.

Vogel said Thursday that he's not looking to get rich. He wants a public apology and enough money to pay continuing therapy. "That is all we ever asked for," he said. "It's not about money."

It's the same for Elizabeth Vessel, 39. She said she was molested at the cabin by Eckroth at least three times; once with a knife held to her throat. Her brother has also claimed he was abused. Both have struggled with chemical abuse and remain in therapy.

The Vessel family considered a lawsuit against the abbey, but lawyers told them the statute of limitations had run out. She said the family needs money for medical bills. "We have two disabled people in my family," she said.

Helen Olson, 42, of Woodbury, didn't file a lawsuit, but in January she told Klassen her memories of abuse during her single visit to the cabin. She said Friday that she remembered Eckroth in bed with her when she was 11.

He was on top of her. She struggled, raking him with her toenails. He left her, she said, and walked across the room toward her sleeping sister. They fought. It ended when Olson said she consented to be raped to spare her sister.

The next morning, she said, Eckroth drew her a bath and told her '"If you tell your parents anything to make them mad at me they will go to Hell because it's a sin to be mad at a priest,"' Olson said.

In January, Klassen wrote her a check for $2,000 to help with expenses for therapists and medication. He sent her another $10,000 this month. A letter with the check didn't admit guilt, but said he hoped it would help in the short term.

Olson said she appreciates the money, but she wants more than that. Among her wishes, she said children entering the St. John's Preparatory School should be informed of the allegations; so should alumni.

She said any psychological evaluations of Eckroth should be made public and he should be interviewed at length. Olson said she also wants a thorough search of the cabin grounds for evidence.

Maxine Barrett, who has served as a volunteer advocate for victims of clergy abuse at St. John's, said an official investigation that documented abuse by any of the priests and monks would help victims that had not come forward, even if charges are never filed.

"Absolutely," she said. "Get it out there."

Barrett, also executive director of a women's shelter in St. Cloud, said it has helped that Klassen has apologized, at least privately, to victims.

"I have seen him apologize on behalf of the monastery," she said.


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