Suffers Relapse

By A.W. Richard Sipe
St. John's Abbey Suffers Relapse
November 4, 2007

This article was completed on November 4, 2007. The former SJP student noted in this essay has vetted it along with the families involved. I quote them directly from their most recent statements and have reviewed my notes from the time of the first reports. This is an example of how complicated and long lasting are the effects of betrayal by the trusted. A sad aspect is the divided loyalties that gnaw at the hearts of good people. Secrecy feeds the fear, embarrassment and guilt for inappropriate clergy behavior. Catholic tradition records for centuries the problem of clerics who betray their trust and misuse their position of power. (Cf. Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes) Are there institutions of integrity and accountability to fight the problem from within?


On October 23, 2007 a priest spokesman for St. John's Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota issued, in part, the following statement to the St. Cloud Times:

In 1994 third-party concerns were expressed about the friendship of Father Tom Andert, OSB, with a student. The concerns led to an intensive internal investigation. As part of the investigation the student was invited to the Abbey and, in an interview with Abbot Timothy Kelly, OSB, he categorically denied that any sexual misconduct had occurred. The investigation revealed no credible charges of sexual abuse.

That is not at all the whole story that has occasioned abuse victims' uproar after the Abbot John Klassen appointed Andert as a representative on the External Review Board overseeing misbehavior of monks and also Prior of the Abbey, that is, second-in-command of the institution celebrating its 150th anniversary of founding this year. The Abbot and lawyers created the External Review Board in 2002 as a protective mechanism to assure adequate oversight of behavior. It was a condition to an agreement when a raft of abuse cases were settled.

What I have to say about this particular brouhaha at St. John's Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota and the priests in this controversy is from my personal experience. That experience began in 1994 and continues to this day—with the young man I will call Ned, his parents, the family he lived with after the events, Abbot Kelly, and as background, with four monastic superiors who have been acknowledged being actively inappropriate with people inside and outside the abbey community. It is the story of some men who profess to be celibate and present themselves and each other to be emotionally and sexually safe. But they are not safe. In fact, many are dangerous, especially to the welfare of the young and the vulnerable.

— There simply was no "intensive internal investigation." Interrogation of a frightened teenager is not investigation. I received the following from a principle who was on the scene in 1994: "How can you have an investigation without anyone talking to us? We know that what we heard from (Ned) was clearly inappropriate behavior between a Headmaster and a student; Andert's actions were abusive. If they can't see that and act appropriately the Abbey has a big problem, and needs some outside help."

My name is Richard Sipe. I served as the personnel director of St. John's Abbey from 1968-1970. I was also the elected Chair of the Board of the St. John's University Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute from 1994 to 1996. I have been a consultant or expert witness in several hundred cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy including cases in Boston and Los Angeles; and I have appeared as a trial witness in five states. I served as an advisor to the Attorney General's office of the State of Massachusetts and the District Attorney's Office of Philadelphia in preparation of grand jury investigations of sexual abuse of minors in their respective jurisdictions.

I have spoken to all the principles in this case, save Abbot Kelly, in the days of October 23 to 29, 2007 and reviewed my records. This is more than the story of one adolescent boy and his headmaster. It is the story of a miasmic institution—a story that concerns a holy place that maintains a whiff of a noxious atmosphere and has not yet found the way to rid itself of pollution.

Ned insisted last week that his story is not one of gayness, and he is absolutely correct. The story is one of betrayal of celibacy and power.

While I chaired ISTI a mother of two former Prep School students came to me with concerns over the behavior of Headmaster Fr. Thomas Andert. A Prep School student, Ned, was living with her family in St. Cloud for a semester of his senior year while his parents were located in another state.

The young man had made a suicidal gesture during his junior year as a boarder at St. John's and spent several days in St. Cloud hospital for observation and psychiatric therapy. It was during this time that Fr. Andert first paid more attention to him, than was appropriate according to Ned's recollection and his father's latter estimation. Only later was Ned able to talk about the incidents; the housemother remembered Ned saying that Andert told him, "your problem is you are gay, but can't accept it." Much later when Ned was able to tell his father about the whole relationship he quoted Andert, "When are you going to be ready to tell me you're gay?"

After his return to school the headmaster paid a great deal of attention to Ned for the rest of the semester. Andert took him to the Twin Cities and treated him to dinner and wine at an expensive restaurant (Ruth Chris) and cruised two gay bars with him. (According to one account given closer the time of the incident, his housemother recalled that Ned said they briefly entered one bar). The priest reassured Ned that it is "OK to be gay" and that he (Andert) was gay. At times Andert gave Ned liquor (scotch) in his private quarters, wrote him letters (that I have read) that affirmed his love. Were there affectionate touches—neck rubs, back rubs, hands on thighs? Yes. More? That is Ned's story alone to tell.

Ned's parents were oblivious of any improper dimension to the relationship and were grateful to Andert for the attention he gave their son during his trying semester. In gratitude they invited Andert to take a trip with them. In one hotel the parents shared a room and their son shared a room with Andert down the hall. According to the father's account: about one or two o'clock in the morning Ned "was beating furiously on the door" and burst into their room. They, not knowing anything about any sexual tension or conflict, tried to convince the boy to return to his room with the priest. The father told me that the boy refused to go back to the room and "cried uncontrollably" in his arms for several hours; Ned spent the rest of the night with his parents. Ned admits to some kind of trigger—or "vibe," in Ned's terms—for his panic reaction. The day following this incident Andert, Ned, and his father went white water rafting. Ned's father was embarrassed by Ned's "rudeness" to Andert and took him aside and scolded him for his behavior, still completely oblivious to the sinister dimensions to the relationship with his son.

During the first semester of his senior year his housemother, also unaware of any trouble at school, noticed Ned became distraught and tense. She was supportive and listened to his concerns. With great difficulty, but over time Ned finally told her much of the story—the trips, the liquor, and intimate approaches. He complained to her that Andert was E-mailing him in spite of Ned's requests to stop.

Both 'foster' parents personally reported the behavior to Abbot Timothy Kelly. They felt (and were) dismissed.

They were frustrated but the only advocates Ned had, since he would not yet share his concerns with his parents. They appealed to me to speak with Abbot Timothy once they heard my connection with the SJU Institute to combat abuse problems. I did. His response to me was glib, "Oh, he (Andert) may have a bit of a drinking problem." He did not take any of the report seriously, even that of a teacher giving alcohol to a minor.

Ned became more anxious during the second semester of his senior year and moved to his grandmother's home in the same area; his mother came from her home in another state to be with Ned to support him while he finished his final year at SJP. It is important to remember that all of these families were "Johnnies" of several generations standing and substantial supporters of St. John's.

But Ned was finally able to share his concerns with his parents. Once Ned's parents heard his story they went to see Abbot Timothy. Their experience is still fresh and distasteful. Whether from information at this interview or from other sources, Abbot Timothy agreed to remove Andert from the prep school. As he assured the parents, he "patted" Ned's mother on the head and said, "Don't worry, everything will be OK." She still shutters at the memory and finds the meeting "condescending." Ned and his parents felt intimidated and humiliated.

Abbot Kelly appointed Andert prefect in the freshman college dorm.

Ned's dad, an ardent long-time supporter of St. John's, was a class ahead of Andert when they were in Prep School. In hope's of smoothing the edges of the conflict of the demotion from headmaster, Ned's dad and mother invited Andert to supper at Pirate's Cove, an up scale restaurant in the area. Andert had a great deal to drink and told the parents that his new assignment was his "perfect dream job." And it was…"to be a prefect in a college dorm; have his (my) desk across from the door of the showers where he (I) could watch the young tight white asses of the boys going in and out." The memory of that statement still haunts the parents.

Ned's father met again with Kelly and told him: "From what I have seen this man is a threat to students." He meant even college students. Kelly said, "What do you expect me to do?" Kelly in turn chided Ned's father for talking to me about the situation and continuing concern.

After Kelly's indifference, his transfer of Andert simply to an older group of potential victims plus the lack of any response to several reports from other parents and even monks who turned to me for the same assistance I felt tremendous pressure. I had talked about all of it to Kelly in private. (Every private report was ignored and put down, even those later acknowledged and settled by the Abbey. No investigation.)

Here I was Chair of a project set up and widely publicized to protect children and help eliminate dangers, first and foremost at St. John's, but the head of the institution turned a deaf and defiant ear to the information that I was relaying to him. I polled the Executive Committee of the ISTI board for advice. They seemed supportive of my determination to speak with Kelly openly in an Executive Board meeting on September 18, 1995. The reaction of Abbot Timothy Kelly can only be described as verbally violent and rejecting. "I will not be manipulated," are some of his words I remember.

Ned insists that his situation is not a question of homosexuality. He is correct. The crisis of Andert and St. John's is an ongoing crisis of power and betrayal. It is a crisis of celibacy-advertised-but-not-lived. It is a crisis of men in positions of power that betray their responsibility to students and others and refuse to be accountable.

There was neither an intensive internal investigation conducted in Ned's case as Fr. Skudlarek claims—my records show a great deal of intimidation—nor was there an adequate investigation in several other cases I presented to Abbot Kelly; even those where, in the end, the Abbey admitted culpability and settled the complaints for substantial sums of money.

Father Thomas Andert's behavior is not a matter of hearsay. Neither is the reported inappropriate behavior of more than 45 other monks hearsay—20 cases were mediated. There are more to be considered. Nor is it misleading, unverified, or false that Andert's appointment as the second in command of the monastery follows in a long tradition of superiors of the monastery who were non-celibately active. I have had the painful task of interviewing a number of people who suffered inappropriate friendships with former Abbot John Eidenschink and Novice Master, Cosmas Dahlheimer. Michael Blecker, former Rector of the Seminary and President of St. John's University was a guest in my home after he became HIV positive; my wife and I were supportive of him personally and visited him when he was in hospice. I reviewed his death certificate and spoke with the funeral director who embalmed him.

At Halloween St. John's Abbey does not have to don scary costumes; it has plenty of frightful skeletons that can give the unwary the creeps.

This is not to say that the Benedictines of Collegeville have not done much good in their century and a half of existence. They are telling that history well in their celebrations; and that part is true, too. But there is a much longer and painful historical account to be written. There are records. Suffice it to say that St. John's Abbey has not yet come to grips with the vapors from problems that still slither along its halls and endanger others as well as its own wellbeing.

November 4, 2007

A. W. Richard Sipe

La Jolla, CA 92037


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