Suits allege St. John’s Abbey monk abused 2 ‘cabin kids’
The clergy sex abuse lawsuit against the Twin Cities archdiocese headed northwest Monday, when documents related to child abuse by five monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., were released and a lawsuit was filed to pry open the abbey’s files.
The letters and internal memos were among the thousands of pages of documents the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis provided to attorneys as part of a lawsuit.
They covered five monks previously identified as abusers — including the Rev. Richard Eckroth, who brought hundreds of students to an abbey cabin for overnight trips.
The suits filed Monday in Stearns County District Court focus on Eckroth and seek the full release of the abbey’s files on abusers. Attorney Jeff Anderson said many of the archdiocese documents were heavily edited.
“A lot of material that should be made public hasn’t been,’’ Anderson said.
Still, the documents show that the abbey used the “geographic solution” with monks facing abuse charges, namely, they were moved to other churches, said Patrick Wall, a former monk at St. John’s who now is an investigator at Anderson’s law firm.
There were so many allegations against Eckroth, for example, that he was transferred to an island in the Bahamas in 1977, where he stayed for nearly 15 years, Wall said.
The two men who filed lawsuits against Eckroth Monday were among the “cabin kids” — boys Eckroth routinely brought to an abbey cabin for weekend trips, Wall said.
The lawsuit claims that Eckroth engaged in “unpermitted sexual misconduct” at the cabin with one of the plaintiffs from age 8 to age 10, and the other from age 10 to age 13.
Handwritten notes from the abbey showed that more than 300 students went with Eckroth to the cabin from roughly 1970 to 1974, before he was sent to the Bahamas. Now 87, the former parish priest and philosophy professor lives at the abbey, Wall said.
How complaints were handled
The archdiocese files show how abuse complaints were addressed at the chancery, at least 15 years ago. In a 1997 memo, then-Archbishop Harry Flynn writes about a lawsuit filed against Cosmas Dahlheimer and Thomas Gillespie, which “has reached a key juncture at which we as an Archdiocese must consider whether it is our best interest to notify members” of the Church of St. Bernard in St. Paul and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stillwater — where the priests served.
“Normally, common sense would dictate that we withhold information from the public for at least two good reasons,” Flynn wrote. “First, the lawsuits may be settled outside of court and not become a matter of public record. And second, an early release of information gives the media a longer period of time to sensationalize the story.”
Flynn goes on to recommend, however, that he and the Rev. Kevin McDonough, then the chancery’s point person on abuse, prepare a memo that would be read at masses at the churches.
The documents posted on Anderson’s website discuss everything from payments for psychological therapy for victims to temporary assignments for priests.
The files were obtained in a lawsuit filed in Ramsey County last year by John Doe 1, who claims he was a sex abuse victim of former priest Thomas Adamson. The “nuisance” lawsuit against the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona argues that the church put public safety at risk by allowing the clergy who abused children to continue to work. The nuisance provision allowed Anderson attorneys to depose Archbishop John Nienstedt in March.
The lawsuit filed in Stearns County makes similar charges, which allows attorneys to seek broad range of evidence.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511