New suits seek information on abusive priests in St. Cloud area

Photos of priests
With colleague attorney Mike Bryant at left, Attorney Jeff Anderson holds photos of Fr. Cosmas Dahlheimer and Fr. Richard Eckroth as he describes the abuse John and Al Vogel experienced as children.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Seeking to force St. John's Abbey and the Diocese of St. Cloud to disclose information on priests and brothers accused of sexually assaulting children, attorney Jeff Anderson today filed suit against the two institutions.

The lawsuits, filed in Stearns County District Court, rely on the same legal strategy Anderson used in a landmark lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona. Anderson's efforts in that case led a judge to order church officials to release a list of "credibly accused" priests and thousands of internal documents from clergy files.

Anderson's latest suits accuse St. John's Abbey in Collegeville and the Diocese of St. Cloud of creating a public nuisance by not releasing the names and files of all abusers. Anderson said their decision to withhold information continues to put children at risk.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

In a statement, St. John's Abbey officials dismissed Anderson's claim as "absurd," saying it "represents fear-mongering at its worst."

However, those same officials are aggressively trying to keep some information secret. In another clergy sex abuse suit filed by Anderson against St. John's Abbey, church lawyers on Wednesday notified the attorney that they plan to ask a judge to seal the files on individual monks so that they cannot be released to the public. ​

In a statement, Diocese of St. Cloud officials said they "have not yet had an opportunity to review the complains and cannot comment on the specifics of the case."

One of the lawsuits Anderson filed today accuses the Rev. William Eckroth of St. John's Abbey of sexually assaulting John Vogel in about 1971 or 1972 when he was about 7 or 8 years old. The suit also accuses the Rev. Cosmas Dahlheimer of St. John's Abbey of sexually assaulting John's brother, Allen Vogel, from about 1971 to 1974, when he was about 5 to 8 years old.

Both clerics befriended the boys while on assignment at St. Augustine Church in the Diocese of St. Cloud, according to the lawsuit.

It asks the court to order St. John's Abbey and the Diocese of St. Cloud to "publicly release the names and documents on all clerics credibly accused of child molestation, which includes each such cleric's history of abuse, each such cleric's pattern of grooming and sexual behavior, and his last known address."

Abuse victim hug
John Vogel hugs attorney Jeff Anderson, left, as Vogel's brother Al stands by following a press conference in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

The Vogels entered into a settlement with St. John's Abbey several years earlier, but they claim the abbey has broken promises made in that settlement to provide therapy to victims and protect the public from abusers.

At a news conference at Anderson's St. Paul office, John Vogel, dressed in a black suit and shaking as he spoke, described how St. John's Abbot John Klassen had promised his parents that he would disclose information on abusers and would not let offenders have access to children. Vogel said the abbey betrayed his family by failing to release a complete list of abusers.

"In my view, all kids are at risk as we speak," John Vogel said. "The deceit continues."

In their statement, St. John's Abbey officials said they have "been conscientious and transparent in voluntarily disclosing the names of monks who may have offended, including previous disclosures of the names of the two priests cited in today's lawsuits."

The statement noted that Dahlheimer is dead and Eckroth "suffers from severe dementia and is confined to the Abbey's supervised nursing care facility."

In July 2002, abbey spokesman William Skudlarek told MPR News that Dahlheimer was living under restriction at St. John's Abbey due to allegations he sexually abused four boys in St. Cloud and St. Paul. Dahlheimer died two years later.

Anderson also filed a lawsuit against St. John's Abbey and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on behalf of an unnamed man who claims Dahlheimer sexually abused him when the priest served at St. Bernard Church in St. Paul. Dahlheimer abused the boy from about 1976 to 1978 when he was about 11 to 13 years old, according to the lawsuit.

The third lawsuit, filed by Anderson against St. John's Abbey and Eckroth, is on behalf of a man who claims Eckroth sexually assaulted him at a vacation cabin in 1970 or 1971, when he was 9 or 10 years old.

Dispute over lists

Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson during a press conference in St. Paul, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

At issue in all three cases is whether St. John's Abbey has disclosed its entire list of priests believed to have sexually abused children.

On Dec. 9, 2013, St. John's Abbey released the names of 18 current and former monks who abbey officials said "likely have offended against minors." The list included Dahlheimer and Eckroth.

The voluntary disclosure came four days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a similar list under court order.

The abbey's list included the names of nine monks living at St. John's Abbey under what abbey officials then called "supervised safety plans." Seven monks on the list are dead and two are no longer monks, according to the abbey.

"This list reflects our best efforts to identify those who likely have offended against minors," an abbey spokesman said in a statement released in December.

Patrick Marker, an outspoken critic of the abbey's handling of abuse cases, noted in December that 15 of the 18 names on the list had already been made public more than two years ago.

A decade ago, Marker settled a lawsuit against St. John's Abbey for alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Dunstan Moorse in 1983 while he was student at St. John's Preparatory School. Marker later served on the abbey's external review board before resigning.

For years, he has tracked the abbey's public statements on clergy sex abuse.

Marker said that the abbey removed its 2011 list from its website in 2012 and replaced it with a statement saying that abbey officials at that point knew of 23 clerics with credible abuse accusations against them.

St. John's did not name the other five at that time, and it is not clear if they are among the names on the list released in December. St. John's officials have declined to explain the discrepancy.

In January, the Diocese of St. Cloud released a list of 33 priests church officials said "were likely involved in the sexual absue of minors."

Of those priests, 21 are dead, and none of the remaining 12 are still serving in ministry, according to the diocese.

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