The monks at St. John’s Abbey worked as student counselors, teachers, parish priests and chaplains, even as they sexually abused minors. What the abbey knew of their sexual improprieties, and when, has never been made public — but that’s about to change.
Under a landmark clergy abuse settlement announced Tuesday, the personnel files of 19 monks known as sex offenders will be made public. The files will expose for the first time how the abbey addressed reports of sex abuse on its Collegeville campus, home to one of the largest Benedictine abbeys in North America.
The lawsuit was settled in much the same way as the first lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, requiring that personnel vaults be opened and that the monks’ work histories, accusations of abuse, psychological treatment, abbey correspondence and other details be made public.
Troy Bramlage, 52, is the Sauk Rapids man whose lawsuit led to the historic settlement. He said he was sexually abused as a 14-year-old freshman living at St. John’s Preparatory School by the Rev. Allen Tarlton, his English teacher.
The lawsuit said the abbey was aware of previous sexual improprieties by Tarlton, yet allowed him to continue to teach at the school. The abbey did not notify parents or police.
“I’m still working on getting through this,” said an emotional Bramlage at a news conference Tuesday in the office of his attorney, Jeff Anderson. “There are a lot of people out there behind me who haven’t stepped forward.”
Tarlton, 87, lives on the abbey campus. Eight other monks whose files will be released also live on campus under some restrictions. Eight others are deceased, and two have left the Benedictine order, said abbey spokesman Aelred Senna.
The settlement comes a week before Bramlage’s case was scheduled for trial in Stearns County.
The abbey has been under scrutiny for years because of charges of sexual misconduct by its monks.
It declined to comment on the lawsuit “out of respect for the privacy of the parties involved.” Its written statement said, “Saint John’s will continue to address the wrongs that were done in the past, and will continue to pray for all survivors of sexual abuse.”
Abuse 1950s to 2003
The abbey settlement will open records on clergy abuse dating from the 1950s to about 2003, said Patrick Wall, a former monk at St. John’s who is now an investigator with Anderson’s law firm. Unlike the settlement with the archdiocese, where priests were scattered across the metro area, the monks at St. John’s have long lived on the same campus as about 2,500 high school and college students at St. John’s prep school and St. John’s University, he noted.
Files slated for release will include those of campus figures ranging from Rev. Bruce Wollmering, former psychology professor and student counselor at St. Johns, Rev. Michael Bik, a former theology professor who worked in campus ministry, and the Rev. Richard Eckroth, former philosophy teacher at St. John’s and a St. Cloud area parish priest. Wollmering is deceased. Bik and Eckroth live on campus.
The files released Tuesday on Tarlton shed light on the types of documents to be made public in the months ahead. They indicate four abbots had been aware of Tarlton’s sexual behavior, which started in 1950s, that he had been sent to five different treatment facilities, on six occasions, and was seen by seven mental health professionals.
A 1992 psychological evaluation that notes that Tarlton, while teaching at the prep school in the mid-1950s, “described sexual contact with several students during this time, and repeated sexual contacts with one particular student in 1955.” Tarlton was removed from the school after two students complained, it said.
The evaluation goes on to say when Tarlton lived in Cincinnati in the mid-1960s, “he describes a great deal of promiscuous sex including going to bath houses, train stations and bus depots to find sexual partners.”
Tarlton acknowledges his sexual activities in a brief autobiography written in the mid-1990s, writing, “from 1955 to 1964 I acted out sexually with about ten college students in the college dorms.” Tarlton said he would often go into students’ rooms while they were sleeping and molest them.
Richard Sipe, a former St. John’s monk who served on its Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute in the 1990s, said he was appalled it took the abbey nearly 50 years to release these documents.
“This is so tardy that it leaves me speechless,” said Sipe, now a nationally recognized expert on clergy abuse based in California. “They invited me to St. John’s in 1992 to help them sort out this mess. There’s just been one coverup after another.”
The 19 monks identified in the settlement did not include four sex abusers the abbey named in 2011. The four priests, including former abbot John Eidenschink, were not listed because their sexual misconduct was not with minors, Senna said.
But Patrick Marker, an outspoken abbey-abuse survivor, said their victims were “vulnerable adults,” namely older students, or in one case a young monk. Their files should be made public too, he said.
“It is tough to transition from victim to survivor when you know that there is information locked away in a file that could validate your experiences and answer questions you’ve been dealing with, often alone, for so many years,” Marker said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511