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As priest abusers become public, a parish looks at its past
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
July 11, 2002

Catholics around the country learned new things about their communities when clergy sex abuse cases received fresh attention this spring. One small parish in central Minnesota discovered that in one 30-year span, three of its clergy turned out to have records of sexual abuse. All three had come to them from nearby St. John's Abbey. Today the men live at the abbey, where they are stripped of their priestly duties and restricted in their daily routines. No new victims of sexual abuse have come forward in St. Joseph, but the case raises new questions about the safety of parish children during those years.

St. Joseph parish church
St. Joseph Parish Church
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Last month, St. John's Abbot John Klassen quietly arranged a meeting with the parishioners of St. Joseph, a town of 4,600 on the road between St. Cloud and St. John's Abbey. Recent media reports said a former parish priest from St. Joseph had committed sexual abuse.

Tom Gillespie surfaced as one of ten monks and priests who live under restrictions at St. John's abbey because of abuse allegations. Gillespie was priest to the St. Joseph parish from 1986 to 1996. Over the years there have been only rumors about why Gillespie abruptly left his post, but the reason is now clear: Reports were confirmed that Gillespie committed sexual abuse in the late 1970s.

Abbey spokesman Father William Skudlarek says it was abbey policy at the time to explain the situation to the parish. But that never happened.

"It was just one of those glitches that the meeting wasn't called in 1996 when Father Thomas was removed," Skudlarek said. "There was never any plan made not to do it, saying, 'Well since this happened so many years before it might just create more anxiety.' It was simply an oversight, an honest mistake."

Abbot John Klassen portrait
Abbot John Klassen
(Courtesy of St. John's Abbey)

St. John's Abbott John Klassen was not available for comment on this story.

Long-term St. Joseph parishioners recognized other names from the media reports. Cosmas Dahlheimer was an associate pastor in St. Joseph between 1978 and 1980. Dahlheimer, it turns out, is suspected of abusing four boys in St. Cloud and St. Paul before that time, starting in 1970. Brennan Maiers was an assistant pastor in St. Joseph between 1965 and 1968. He reportedly abused a boy in 1966, during his time there. Dahlheimer and Maiers are currently living restricted lives at the abbey.

None of the allegations surfaced until the 1990s. Skudlarek says the fact these men all passed through the same parish was "an unhappy coincidence, an unhappy sequence of events, but purely accidental as far as I'm aware."

None of the three men would comment for this story. Gillespie declined; Dahlheimer is in his 90s and said to be in poor health; Maiers, until recently a chaplain at St. Scholastica in Duluth, did not return a phone message.

The St. Joseph parish church is the dominant structure in downtown St. Joseph. The current parish priest declined a recorded interview, saying only that the parish feels "shocked, angry and embarrassed" and the current leadership is ready to "listen attentively" to any concerns parishioners have.

Jim Kuebelbeck has some concerns. He was among the 120 people at the meeting with the abbot. Kuebelbeck is about 60, and says he's been a member of the parish "forever." He's an active church-member, and says he does know sexual abuse victims in the community.

St. John's Abbey church
The St. John's Abbey Church in Collegeville
(MPR File Photo)

"I think the biggest concern among the general population, Catholic and non-Catholic, is the switching around and transferring," Kuebelbeck said. "Once they discover abuse, they transfer to different parishes and probably didn't give the reasons why they were transferred to the parish they were being assigned to."

Kuebelbeck does not suspect that the abbey knowingly moved abusive priests into St. Joseph. And St. John's Abbey spokesman Skudlarek says there is no evidence Abbey leadership knew the men might pose a risk. "There had been no allegations, there was nothing on their record that would have indicated reason for hesitation or for not recommending them," Skudlarek said.

St. John's has traditionally supplied Benedictine pastors for St. Joseph. It also supplies priests for other area parishes, including Avon, Albany, Cold Spring and Richmond. But the parishes are a part of the St. Cloud Diocese, under the ultimate oversight of the bishop.

Bishop John Kinney rarely grants interviews, and diocese spokesman Steve Gottwalt declined to comment on tape. But Gottwalt explained by e-mail how these particular pastoral appointments are made.

"The abbot selects a priest from the monastic community and 'presents' that priest to the bishop of the diocese, who then confirms the appointment," Gottwalt wrote. "The priest still reports to the abbot and his personnel records remain with the abbey. In fact, a bishop has little means of investigating the background of a given priest from St. John's Abbey, and must rely on the evaluation of the abbot who presents the priest. I can tell you that the bishop stays in close contact with the abbot, and expects to be informed about issues that would render an abbey priest unfit for parish ministry."

The structure is laid out in church law, and is roughly the same wherever religious orders supply parish priests. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul Diocese, positions are also filled this way. Diocese officials say 17% of Twin Cities parish priests are members of religious orders.

Bishop John Kinney
Bishop John Kinney
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

Kinney did not become bishop in St. Cloud until after the appointments in St. Joseph. In recent months he has received national praise for his work on the clergy sex abuse issue. Spokesman Steve Gottwalt did not say whether the bishop now plans to exercise closer scrutiny over priests from St. John's who serve the diocese.

Gottwalt did reaffirm the bishop will dismiss any priest from ministry who abuses a child, regardless of his origins.

Abbey spokesman Skudlarek says for its part the abbey will take these appointments as seriously as ever. "It would seem to me that there will be closer scrutiny given to any position, any assignment, that involves monks in a pastoral relationship with people," he said. "It seems to me that there is a need to assure people that they are being served by people who are above reproach."

There are no plans right now for a follow-up meeting in St. Joseph. But Skudlarek says Abbot Klassen knows the situation may weigh on the minds of some parishioners.

"He has always indicated he's open in the first place to victims who would come forward, but (he's open) to anybody," Skudlarek said. "And he himself has said that there are secondary victims, and the secondary victims in this case would be the parishioners and anyone who is in any way related."

Now that he knows the circumstances, Jim Kuebelbeck of St. Joseph can appreciate the abbot's swift action removing Tom Gillespie from the parish. This despite the fact that Kuebelbeck, like many parishioners, has only the fondest memories of "Father Tom."

"In fact, it was quite a shock when Father Tom was pulled out of here," he said. "He was taken out of here immediately when it was discovered that (the abuse) had happened, and the abbot pulled him out of here overnight. And I just have to give the abbot credit for that. That took a lot of intestinal fortitude."

But for Kuebelbeck the new discussions do cause some old questions to resurface. Kuebelbeck says his family knows sexual abuse victims in town, and their parents. And he wonders out loud if two nephews who committed suicide many years ago might have been troubled because of abuse by a fourth St. John's priest. That abuse was never established.

Kuebelbeck says he does not feel like St. Joseph has been unduly harmed by its proximity to St. John's. But he believes the community is definitely in need of reassurance. "I think the issue is going to take years to lay to rest, and only if they take some strong direct action here to show the Catholic community and the non-Catholic community that they're taking this so seriously they're going to put a stop to this," Kuebelbeck said.

Like St. Joseph, it is common for small parishes across Minnesota to have had a parade of pastors over the years. It's not clear whether the frequency of troubled priests here is an aberration or just the first of such discoveries.

More from MPR
  • Abuser monks out of the ministry, still in jobs June 20, 2002
  • St. John's Abbey looks at a lawsuit June 6, 2002
  • St. Cloud Catholics vent their anger June 2, 2002
  • St. John's scandal shows need for legal reform, abuse victims say May 14, 2002
  • St. John's Abbey responds May 9, 2002