Minnesota's Catholic bishops returned from Dallas with an explicit mandate to deal with sex abusers in the clergy. The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" binds bishops around the country to the same "one-strike" policy. But monasteries and religious orders are not bound by the charter. That includes St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, where at least 10 men are living under restrictions because of sexual abuse. But St. John's says it does plan to apply its own interpretation of the bishops' charter to the monks in its care.
Father James abused a young person many years ago, and lives under restrictions at St. John's. Father James is a pseudonym; the abbey has asked monks not to talk about this issue.
Father James says life on restriction is filled with prayer, early morning meditation, therapy and support group meetings. But he's still seen regularly around campus, often going to and from his office.
"I really enjoy what I'm doing," he said. "It's an indirect ministry. I'm serving the community, and I'm doing something important with my life."
Father James understands and accepts he can no longer work with children. But he says God wants him to remain a member of the community, "God wants me to continue to become a better monk," and he has a lot of living left to do.
"All of us need meaningful work. Every human-being needs a meaningful life."
- "Father James"
He says the life is comfortable. He enjoys the support of his brothers, saying there is no social segregation in the monastery among offenders and non-offenders. Those on restriction are something like family members who have made a mistake.
"They pat me on the back and say, 'We're praying for you,'" he said. "We're supportive of each other."
Father James's life is not likely to change much as St. John's applies the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. He is already removed from pastoral work with children. He won't be able to wear the roman collar any more, but he says he dresses in civilian clothes most of the time now anyway.
Still, Abbot John Klassen says there will be significant changes. The most significant will be removing any monk who has abused children or adults, (the bishops' charter only covers young people) from any public practice of the faith. He shared the policy with monks at a closed meeting Wednesday night.
"We have had these men functioning in a ministerial capacity, working for example as chaplains at St. Benedict's monastery, St. Scholastica, St. Paul's monastery in the Twin Cities," Klassen said. "So what the implementation of this means is that that priestly ministry is no more. Any public celebration of the sacraments, any kind of ministry that would operate under their priesthood, is no longer."
This change will be in place by July. On the question of "desk jobs," St. John's may deliberate longer. Like Father James, a number of restricted men do have prominent jobs related to the Abbey. The two monks named this month in a lawsuit against St. John's are an editor of the Liturgical Press and the Director of Oblates, a group of lay-people who have professed a special devotion to Benedictine values.
To some, the charter leaves little room for interpretation on the matter. Steve Gottwalt is a spokesman for the Diocese of St. Cloud. He traveled with Bishop John Kinney to Dallas. The Abbey sits in the Diocese's 16-county district, but is not under the bishop's control. Gottwalt says theologically, an offending priest remains a priest until he is defrocked. But "from a human resources perspective," the relationship is over.
"He can't serve within the church, he can't work within the church, so if he ever abuses again, he is not a representative of the Catholic Church. I think that was very important to (the bishops)."
The Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul apparently agrees. Earlier this week three priests there were stripped of their office jobs.
Unlike a Catholic diocese, St. John's is embracing the charter voluntarily and can take or leave parts as it chooses. Abbot Klassen says the nature of monastic community means the men could never be turned out if they accept their groundrules. And it may seem better in the end to keep their days occupied with work than to impose a kind of house-arrest.
As it fills in details on its policy, Klassen says the abbey will continue to coordinate and communicate with the other Catholic institutions in the region.
"We really want to be in union with the church, with the diocese, and in union with the bishops," Klassen said. "It's very, very important because of the complexity of this issue and the amount of pain that's out there in the community and the church, that we really stand together."
But undoubtedly the Abbey will continue to face the same public pressure brought to bear on bishops in Dallas: That clergy with a strike against them have lost their chance for a life in the church.