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Priest on leave from Essentia, St. Michael's parish after allegations aired

The Rev. Timothy Backous

A Benedictine priest has been placed on administrative leave from Essentia Health and has been asked to discontinue assisting at St. Michael’s parish in Duluth after allegations resurfaced that he sexually molested a boy during a choir tour in Europe 25 years ago.

The Rev. Timothy Backous “has carried out his duties here … in an exemplary manner and consistent with his vows and responsibilities,” said the Rev. James Bissonette, vicar general of the Diocese of Duluth, in a statement posted on the diocese’s website this week.

“Nonetheless, we take such matters extremely seriously and have asked Father Backous to suspend his weekend work at the parish until a fuller examination of the facts can be completed.”

In a separate statement, Essentia Health said Backous had offered to take leave from his role as vice president for mission integration and Benedictine sponsorship.

Backous was appointed to the position, which primarily involved ministering in the Catholic hospitals in the Twin Ports, in August.

Backous’ whereabouts were unknown, and he wasn’t immediately available for a comment.

The actions came after the release of a May 31 letter to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from a St. Cloud couple complaining that their allegations about Backous hadn’t been addressed.

Chris and Kathy McDermid say their son toured Europe with the St. John’s Boys’ Choir, which then was a part of St. John’s Abbey, during the summer of 1990. Backous went along as a chaperone, the McDermids said in their letter.

Their son, who turned 13 during the tour, exhibited markedly different behavior after his return, said the couple, both of whom are retired teachers.

“We thought of it as teenage bad behavior,” Kathy McDermid said in a telephone interview with both on Thursday.

But after a year went by, their son told them he had been sexually abused by Backous, she said.

The couple removed their son from choir and saw that he received therapy, she said. They also took the allegation to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and were told it was out of their jurisdiction, she said.

The abbey paid for their son’s therapy and promised that Backous wouldn’t have any more involvement with the choir or any more access to students.

“They promised that Father Backous would be sent into therapy far away,” Kathy McDermid said. “So we thought that it was taken care of. We trusted that everything was done.”

The McDermids said they were shocked to learn from a friend that Backous had preached at the Basilica of St. Mary’s in Minneapolis during Memorial Day weekend. They further learned that Backous had served as headmaster of St. John’s Prep School in recent years.

That’s what prompted the McDermids to send their letter to the archdiocese, they said.

In a statement, Abbott John Klassen of St. John’s Abbey defended Backous.

“The allegations were not substantiated,” Klassen wrote. “Father Backous has no restrictions placed upon him. I have absolute confidence in his integrity and character.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a statement Thursday, saying it was unaware of the allegations against Rev. Backous, and that they had received a letter from St. John’s Abbey which stood as a testament to Backous’ good standing before he was allowed to minister within the archdiocese.

“Since this accusation is new to us, we have contacted the abbot at Saint John’s Abbey and Rev. Backous, and requested Rev. Backous temporarily refrain from ministering in the archdiocese until we can obtain more information surrounding this accusation, and how it was addressed by the Order of Saint Benedict. We believe this is a prudent response and is consistent with our commitment to protect children and help in healing,” the archdiocese said in a statement.

The McDermids said they aren’t aware of any allegations against Backous other than their own. But they said there’s no doubt in their minds that the abuse occurred. Their son, who now lives in California, still suffers the effects, they said.

“He often has situations where he has difficulties with this still,” Kathy McDermid said.

Chris McDermid said that when their son was in college he once was with a group attending a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Their son happened to see that Backous was in the audience and had a “meltdown,” he said.

The McDermids said their son has been in contact with Jeff Anderson and Associates of St. Paul, a firm that specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases. But to their knowledge, he hasn’t filed a lawsuit. They declined to name their son.

The parents will take no legal action, they said.

“We just want Father Backous to be removed from the ministry and not have any access to children,” Kathy McDermid said.

But they wouldn’t object to the Essentia Health position as long as he was never alone with children, Chris McDermid said.

The Catholic Church has been embroiled in clergy sexual abuse allegations in recent years, including in Minnesota.

Under court orders, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in December named 30 priests whom it said had been credibly accused of abuse. A week later, Jeff Anderson’s firm filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Duluth, asking that names and files of at least 17 credibly accused priests be made public.

In his statement, Klassen said St. John’s Abbey had acknowledged “credible accusations” and reached out to victims.

“But we also hope that those who are innocent will not have to live under clouds of doubt because of the actions of others,” he wrote.

He also wrote that he believed the McDermids were sincere.

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