All Things Considered

Long-time leader of St. John's Abbey retires leaving storied 23-year legacy

St. John's Abbey in Collegeville
The monks of St. John’s Abbey are convening to elect their next leader, or abbot.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2016

This week in Collegeville, the monks of St. John’s Abbey are convening to elect their next leader, or abbot. John Klassen is retiring after 23 years in the role.

Most notably, he led the monastery through a sexual abuse reckoning that followed the state’s 2013 law allowing old abuse cases to be brought forward. The monastery says there are credible claims against 21 monks, both past and present.

When it comes to Klassen’s handling of those cases, attorney Jeff Anderson says he was a “revolutionary.” Anderson was the lawyer representing many of the survivors in those cases, and he shared more of his reflections on the legacy of John Klassen.

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above. The following transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

What to you was different about John Klassen and the way he handled these cases?

Anderson: His predecessors were always in denial and locked together to avoid accountability and/or transparency. When we encountered Abbot John Klassen after his election in 2000, he demonstrated empathy, compassion and courage.

I emphasize courage because he was willing to do what needed to be done to begin a process of allowing for justice for the survivors, some measure of accountability on behalf of the order, and willing to make disclosures about who the offenders were in the past and present that none before him had ever been willing to do.

As somebody who has dealt with these cases, is his approach singular here or are there others who do the same thing now because of what he’s done?

I would say Abbot John Klassen was really the first to break out of the mold of deceit, denial and adherence to secrecy. Others have followed but none have been as forward-thinking and forward-leaning as Abbot John Klassen. And I’ve encountered hundreds of bishops, hundreds of superiors across the country who adhere more to the past than are willing to go into the present to do better.

You have been quoted as saying that what was happening at St. John’s was rampant, the culture was among the most predatory and most perilous. What was it that caused that? And would you still say that after Klassen’s tenure?

First to say what was. The clerical Catholic culture is a system that adheres to secrecy and self-protection. And the monastery and the Order of St. Benedict at St. John’s was a subculture of that culture. Because they’re monastic, all living together, all eating together, all praying together all the time, that made them even more secretive than the larger clerical culture.

When I began to encounter them 40 years ago, I saw them as being the most closed, the most intransigent, and in many ways, the most combative. They would beat back the survivors at every effort we would make to get them to change, to come clean and to do justice for the survivors.

It wasn’t until Abbot Klassen came on board and succeeded Abbot Timothy Kelly, who had been extremely combative and intransigent and himself an offender, that we saw a change in attitude, a change in action — and it gave us hope.

It was from that bond and our willingness and his willingness to trust one another, that we began to be able to move them out of the 19th century into the 20th century [to] develop new ways of requiring the disclosure of offenders, disclosing who had protected them and then developing practices and protocols to protect kids, and to move into the future instead of adhering to the past.

The monastery is now in the process of selecting a new abbot and that could come at any time. What do you hope the next person carries forward in terms of building on the legacy of John Klassen?

They indeed still need to not only continue the legacy of transparency, a measure of accountability and to be courageous in confronting the pain that they have caused so many survivors in the past. They still have a long way to go and in many ways, they still are in the 20th century.

The Vatican has completed its investigation into former Minneapolis and St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt. It found he took “imprudent actions but did not violate church law.” He’s barred from practicing public ministry or living in the region. Give us your reaction to that and as far as you’re concerned, does that clear the former archbishop of wrongdoing?

My reaction and that of the survivors with whom we’ve been working for so long to the report effectively giving Nienstedt a pass, again, is first with shock and horror.

It is clearly just the Vatican and the Catholic clerical culture just doing business as usual — turning a blind eye to a reality and a whole body of evidence that shows that he was both complicit in crimes and a big part of a cover-up.

And then to say that he still is fit to minister today perhaps is not a surprise because that’s what they’ve been doing for decades. But it is still shocking, it is still revolting and it is still a clear message that they have a long way to go.