Alleged abuse victim searches for justice in the Diocese of Crookston

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception   Crookston Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Crookston, Minn. CNA file photo

In 1971, when Ron Vasek was 16 years old, a priest invited him to take a trip. The priest, Fr. Roger Grundhaus, was a family friend, and Ron's parents supported the idea.

Fr. Grundhaus, a priest of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, was going to a canon law convention in Columbus, Ohio. He said he wanted Vasek to come along to help with the drive.

Vasek had looked forward to the trip. "I'd never been off the farm, basically," he told CNA.

Vasek said that on the first day of travel, Grundhaus bought him a beer, and continued to buy him alcohol during the trip.

On the second day, Vasek recalled, Grundhaus attended meetings in the morning, and then spent time drinking with friends. Vasek and Grundhaus went to dinner together in the hotel's restaurant, where the priest continued to drink as they ate their meal.  

After dinner, Vasek said, the priest sexually assaulted him in their hotel room.

Vasek told CNA he fought the priest off, and then "I just kinda stared at him and then he moved back away and never said anything, didn't do a thing. And then a little later we went to bed and it was kind of uncomfortable, but I just didn't know what to think of it."

"I was 16 years old, off the farm, I didn't have a clue what was going on," he said.

"We left there, and we drove home like nothing happened, and he never, ever, ever, said anything to me about it, for a long time, and I kinda just buried it in the back of my head. I just didn't know what to do."

"I never said anything to my parents," Vasek told CNA. "Ever."

The next year Grundhaus invited him to attend another convention, and his parents, who knew nothing about the abuse, "thought it was a great idea."  

A blizzard stopped them along the way. There were no hotel rooms in the small town where they were stopped, but an armory had been opened as a makeshift shelter to accommodate stranded travelers. They spent the night in the armory along with families and other motorists stopped by the snow.

"So that was-- I guess God was watching out for me."

Grundhaus took him on one more trip, again with encouragement from his parents. The priest tried to get him to drink scotch, he said, but he refused and felt uncomfortable being with Grundhaus, although he said he was not assaulted on that trip.

A few years later, when Vasek's brother died, Grundhaus grew closer to his family. "He became really an instrumental part of the family, because he counseled mom and dad. He was there all the time."

Vasek told CNA that he never raised the issue of his assault with his family, although he saw Grundhaus frequently as he became an adult, as they often worked together on retreat teams and other ministry initiatives.

He told CNA the abuse took a heavy toll on his life. He said that he drank often, and struggled in other areas of his life.
"I didn't know how much that abuse affected me until I can look back on it now with a clear mind."

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Vasek said that even while the abuse had a serious impact on him, he tried not to think about it often. In fact, he told CNA, "I just kind of quit thinking about it until one day, probably ten years ago."

Vasek was in a parish sacristy during a retreat in 2008 when Grundhaus approached him, he told CNA.

He said that Grundhaus "said he wanted to apologize for what he did in Columbus, Ohio. And he said he went to confession for it. But he said, 'if you need any help with anything, if you made bad business decisions or if you're struggling with anything,' he said, 'I have money, I can help pay for therapy or I can help you out.'"

"You know, he kind of shocked me," Vasek said.

Vasek didn't understand why, after decades, "all of the sudden he's apologizing. I just said 'Ok, I accept your apology,' and kind of just left it at that."

A few days later, Vasek went to the priest's office, asking him to swear there had been no other victims. He said Grundhaus told him he hadn't abused anyone else.

"And then he tells me, 'if this ever comes up, I'll always deny it.'"

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Vasek had no idea how to respond to what Grundhaus told him. "I really struggled with that, but I didn't say anything because of the family stuff."

In 2010, Vasek decided to say something. At the time, he had applied to become a deacon in the Diocese of Crookston, where he still lived. His son had just become a priest in the diocese.

He said he first told a priest in the neighboring Diocese of Fargo. That diocese sent the allegation to Bishop Michael Hoeppner, Crookston's bishop. Hoeppner then asked Vasek for an appointment. 

(Vasek said this meeting took place in 2010, while the Diocese of Crookston claims it took place in 2011.)

"When I went into the bishop's office, there was nobody there, it was just him and I."

"So the bishop, he just kind of, he just chews on me for five minutes," Vasek told CNA, adding that the bishop told him that Grundhaus was a great priest, and that a "claim" about the matter could be very expensive. After a while, Vasek recalled, the bishop asked him if he intended to make a formal complaint.

"By this time," Vasek said, "I didn't know what the hell to think. I just put my hands up and I said 'I just want to know if I can get through the diaconate program, knowing this information."

Vasek said that Hoeppner told him he believed the story, before adding that he shouldn't say anything about the matter.

Vasek told CNA he agreed to keep silent. "That was the first time I had revealed my abuse in 40 years, so I was still kind of numb."

He began the diaconal program in the diocese soon after the meeting. His allegation did not come up again until October 2015.

On Oct. 21, 2015, Vasek said he was summoned to meet with Bishop Hoeppner at the bishop's home. There, he told CNA, Hoeppner told him to sign a letter recanting his allegation against Grundhaus.

He said the bishop explained that the Fargo diocese had inquired about Vasek's 2010 allegation against Grundhaus, and intended to forbid the priest from exercising ministry within its territory.

"We want to have Grundhaus be able to do ministry," Vasek said Hoeppner told him, "so we need to have you sign a letter recanting your allegation."

The letter had already been printed on diocesan stationary.

Vasek said that Hoeppner asked him, "If news of the scandal of Grundhaus gets out, how could I ordain you? Who would want you? Where would I put you? And besides, it would be very difficult on your son."

"When he said that, I knew exactly what he meant," Vasek told CNA. "I was sickened. Absolutely sickened."

Vasek signed the letter.

It read: "I, Ron Vasek, regarding a trip I was on when I was 16 years old, and on which a priest of the Diocese of Crookston was also participating, clearly and freely state that I have no desire to nor do I make any accusation of sexual impropriety by the priest toward me."

In August of that year, months before that meeting, the diocese had been ordered by a court to release the names of all priests alleged to have abused children prior to 1985. A priest of the diocese told CNA that he believes Hoeppner asked Vasek to retract his claim in order to avoid naming Grundhaus on that list.

Vasek told CNA he was stunned.

He couldn't believe what he had experienced. He had struggled for decades to grapple with the abuse he experienced. When he told his bishop about it, he was ordered to keep silent. And now he was being asked to deny it had ever happened.

It felt, he said, "like being abused all over again."

He thought of words he says Hoeppner said to him in 2010: "This is a cross you're just going to have to carry."

For two years, Vasek did not mention the letter to his wife or family.

In February 2017 Vasek's pastor, Fr. Xavier Ilango, recommended him for ordination as a deacon. Vasek was measured for vestments. The Diocese of Crookston mailed invitations for its upcoming diaconal ordination; Vasek's name was listed among those who would be ordained on June 10, 2017.

But in March 2017, Vasek told CNA, he was abruptly told that his ordination might be delayed by at least a year. With almost everything prepared, he was told his pastor had raised previously unmentioned concerns, and that he might not be ordained with his class.  

CNA has obtained a copy of a letter reportedly from Vasek's pastor, which said that Vasek had strained relationships with some parishioners and needed to learn to take direction better. The letter, unsigned and undated, suggested that Vasek's ordination could be delayed a year.

CNA attempted to contact Ilango, but was told by the Diocese of Crookston that he is on sabbatical. His parish bulletin reports that he traveled to India on July 1.

On April 6, 2017, Vasek and his wife met with Hoeppner, who told them he would give more thought to the possibility of Vasek's ordination. He seemed non-committal.

Vasek told CNA he believed his ordination was being threatened as a reminder to keep silent about the abuse he had endured, and the letter he had signed.  

Vasek decided he had had enough. He decided that he could not trust Hoeppner, and could not promise to be obedient to him, which would be required at the time of his ordination. He told his story to two priests of the diocese, Fr. Robert Schreiner and Msgr. David Baumgartner.  

Schreiner told CNA that he remembers Vasek saying to him, "I've been abused for 41 years, and now I'm still being abused."

Schreiner and Vasek had been friends for decades. He described Vasek as a man of "integrity and honesty." Although he was director of the diocesan diaconal program, and had previously been Hoeppner's chancellor, he resolved to help.

Baumgartner, a canon lawyer who had previously been Hoeppner's vicar general- the chief advisor to the bishop- also decided that he would do whatever he could to help Vasek.

Both priests told CNA they believed that Hoeppner had forced Vasek to sign the 2015 letter, and both believed that the bishop was unjustly punishing and threatening Vasek in 2017.

"I believed him," Schreiner told Minnesota Public Radio in 2017.

"As the account unfolded with each horrifying revelation and event and name, my heart would sink lower and my mind would flinch, not wanting to believe it. But at no point during his testament that night, nor since, did my intuition click with the thought that 'that doesn't ring true' or 'that just doesn't sound right.'"

In fact, CNA spoke with several priests and former diocesan employees in the Diocese of Crookston; none questioned the integrity of Vasek's story.

"This was bad on so many levels," Schreiner told CNA.

Baumgartner told CNA that Vasek wanted to address Hoeppner's conduct with Church authorities. Vasek hoped he could still be ordained a deacon.

But Baumgartner, Schreiner, and Vasek were uncertain how to make a complaint against their own bishop. After prayer, they decided to try the apostolic nunciature- the Vatican embassy in Washington, DC.

Baumgartner called the apostolic nunciature in March 2017, asking for direction about how to proceed. He said that initially, the nuncio's office seemed "eager to get to the know the story," and promised to provide him soon with further instructions.

He said that after weeks passed with no response, he called the nunciature again in early April, and was surprised when a staffer told him that he should not make any accusation unless he had "solid proof."

"The attitude of the nunciature changed," Baumgartner said. "They went from being eager to help to saying that we can't do anything unless we had proof."

After that conversation, Baumgartner decided the Vatican was unlikely to respond quickly.

"Ron's ordination was pending. I presumed that the fact that this was a man called to orders mattered, and that the Holy See would respond appropriately, given the timeline that we found ourselves in. That expectation was completely unfounded on my part."

"We don't have proof," Baumgartner added. "We have a story. But we wanted the Church to investigate that story."

Baumgartner sent a letter to the nunciature explaining the allegation against Hoeppner on April 11, 2017. He asked for advice about how to proceed. Then he waited for a response.

In the meantime, Vasek sent a letter directly to Hoeppner, on April 29, 2017.

"It is my deepest desire to serve in the Diocese of Crookston as a deacon," Vasek wrote.

"In October of 2015, you asked me to sign a letter to renounce my accusation of sexual abuse against Msgr. Roger Grundhaus....Before I signed it I declared to you that the letter was a lie, and you determined that I should sign it."

"I renounce that letter as a lie," Vasek added.

"In another conversation, you asked if I intended to file a law suit regarding my sexual abuse. I would like you to know that I retain the right to seek justice in this matter by legal and canonical means."

Vasek doubted that he would ever be ordained a deacon in Crookston after that letter was sent. But he wanted the truth to come out.  

On May 13, 2017, Baumgartner sent packets to several Vatican offices, including the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formally alleging misconduct on the part of Hoeppner. He reports that he received a response to those complaints in late June of that year, when the nunciature wrote to him, saying that his complaint to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been forwarded to the Congregation for Clergy. The letter offered no other information.

"Msgr. Baumgartner sent letters to four offices of the Vatican," Vasek told CNA.

"The only thing that happened was that the nuncio told Bishop Hoeppner to investigate Grundhaus," Vasek said, adding that there was no acknowledgement of the complaint about Hoeppner.

Vasek was looking for justice. By the time the Vatican responded to say his complaint had been transferred from one office to another, Vasek had already begun a different process.

On May 9, Vasek sued Bishop Hoeppner and the Diocese of Crookston. On the same day, Grundhaus was suspended from ministry.

If he'd felt that Church authorities would work toward justice, Vasek would not have sued, several sources told CNA.

"Our preference was to have the Church respond," Baumgartner said. But when the nunciature did not seem willing to respond quickly, they decided to proceed with a lawsuit.

The lawsuit is a controversial matter for many sources CNA spoke with. Vasek's lawyer is Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has led litigation against dioceses in several states, and advocated for changes to statutes of limitation for clergy sexual abuse victims. Critics have called Anderson an opportunist, and argued that his tactics have aimed to bankrupt the Church even when dioceses are willing to help victims of sexual abuse, all while he has collected attorney's fees for his work.

Anderson has also been accused of paying kickbacks to victims' advocacy groups that refer potential clients to him, although he denies that allegation.

Vasek was unsure about Anderson. So were his friends. The priests had worked in the curia while Anderson sued their own diocese. But they said that no other qualified lawyer would take their case.

CNA attempted to contact two law firms Vasek says he approached. One said it would not comment on clients or potential clients, and the other did not respond to requests for comment.

Schreiner said Vasek reluctantly went to Anderson, and was clear from the beginning that he did not want his lawsuit to harm the Church. He said Vasek insisted he wanted justice, and for the truth to come out.

Some aspects of the lawsuit have been settled. The letter Vasek signed was returned to him, after being recovered from the diocese by Crookston police.

Vasek also reached a financial settlement with the diocese, the amount of which is undisclosed. He told CNA the settlement was modest, and that he would save it for his retirement.

Other parts of the lawsuit continue, some of which pertain to Grundhaus himself, and the abuse Vasek alleges took place in 1971. Some have to do with the diocesan response to abuse.

The goal of the lawsuit, Vasek emphasized, "is to get to the truth."

"The money means crap to me," he said. "I want the truth to come out."

"To expose these guys for covering up an abuse that happened. The bishop has admitted breaking the rules that Pope Francis laid down," Vasek said.

"And just to clean up the diocese, period."

"The homosexual subculture of the priesthood is well and vibrant in this diocese and has been for years," Vasek said. "That culture has been in our diocese for a long time."

Vasek and his supporters told CNA they hoped that Church authorities would intervene to help with the situation, even after the lawsuit was underway.

On March 28, 2018, a year after Ron Vasek's ordination was delayed, his son Fr. Craig Vasek sent a letter to the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

CNA obtained a copy of that letter.

Fr. Vasek, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wrote that Hoeppner was "prepared to do avoid addressing this matter."

"All we want is the truth," Fr. Vasek wrote, adding that "if you give me the chance, you can be the judge of our situation."

"To be fair, we are pursuing the regular course of action, but the systems in place are not going to help," he wrote.

"I am writing to you because you are good, trustworthy, and just. And we are in grave need, now."

The priest asked O'Malley for a brief meeting, offering to fly to Boston, or arrange a phone call or video conference.

On May 2, 2018, the Archdiocese of Boston sent Fr. Vasek a reply to his letter.

"We are sorry to know of the difficulties currently presented to you, your family, and the Diocese of Crookston. Although the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, of which Cardinal O'Malley serves as President, does not have oversights or jurisdiction for any allegations or cases concerning sexual abuse by clergy, we are aware that these are very difficult matters."

"Thank you for understanding that with regard to any matters concerning clergy personnel in the Diocese of Crookston or any civil or canonical complaints concerning the diocese, we must necessarily respect the jurisdiction and oversight of the Diocesan Bishop and those diocesan officials appointed to assist with such matters. We hope that this information may be helpful for you."

The letter, which concluded with a promise of prayers, was signed by Fr. Robert Kickham, secretary to Cardinal O'Malley.

On Aug. 20, after reports surfaced about a 2015 letter sent to him by Fr. Boniface Ramsey, a priest concerned with the behavior of now-disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, O'Malley issued a public apology for failing to personally review Ramsey's letter, and pledged to modify the procedures of his office.

A source in the Archdiocese of Boston told CNA that the cardinal's office contacted Fr. Vasek shortly after that apology was issued, inviting the priest to meet with O'Malley.

CNA requested to interview Hoeppner, but the Diocese of Crookston declined that request. Instead, CNA was referred to four statements released by the diocese.

The first statement, issued May 9, 2017, said that "Bishop Hoeppner categorically denies that he in any way forced, coerced or encouraged Mr. Vasek not to pursue his allegations regarding Msgr. Grundhaus."

"Mr. Vasek's allegations of abuse regarding Msgr. Grundhaus were reported to law enforcement in 2011." Multiple sources told CNA that it was the Fargo diocese, and not the Diocese of Crookston, that reported the allegations to law enforcement in that year.

The next statement, a May 14, 2017 letter addressed to Catholics in the Diocese of Crookston, reiterated Hoeppner's denial, adding that "there are two sides to every story and there is another, a very different side to the story reported last week."

CNA supplied specific questions to the Diocese of Crookston, asking for the other side of the story, but the diocese declined to answer those questions.

The third statement, issued September 20, 2017, after the first aspects of the lawsuit were settled, said that the settlement reached "avoids costly attorney fees and a drawn out legal process. The settlement agreement does not constitute any admission of unlawful conduct or wrong doing by Bishop Hoeppner. No diocesan funds were used to pay the settlement. The Diocese is now seeking dismissal of the remaining claims related to this matter."

The fourth statement, issued September 27, 2017, in Hoeppner's name, said that the bishop "did not pressure Mr. Vasek to remain quiet when we met in 2011 or when we met again in 2015. Mr. Vasek had indicated to me that he wanted the alleged incident to remain confidential. I attempted to abide by his wishes."
"I was willing to ordain Mr. Vasek as a permanent deacon. He attended the final deacon formation weekend in late April, along with the other deacon candidates. Mr. Vasek chose not to be ordained for diaconal ministry. I respect his decision."

"Looking back and knowing what I do now, I believe I would have handled my conversations with Mr. Vasek differently. However, please know that I did not pressure Mr. Vasek into making any decision with which he was not comfortable," Hoeppner's statement added.

"I continue to pray for all those involved in this matter. No one should ever be subject to inappropriate sexual conduct. I ask all Catholics and people of good will to pray for healing for all those who have suffered abuse." 

CNA was unable to reach Grundhaus.

Hoeppner, 69, was ordained a priest by Pope Paul VI in 1975, after studies at the Pontifical North American College. After earning a licentiate in canon law, and serving as a teacher, educational administrator, and director of vocations, he became the Diocese of Winona's judicial vicar in 1988, and the vicar general of that diocese in 1997.

He was appointed Bishop of Crookston Sept. 28, 2007.

On Aug. 22, after the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing sexual abuse in six dioceses of that state, Hoeppner wrote in a pastoral letter that "All victims are owed sincere apologies for what those entrusted with leadership in the Church have done and have failed to do."

"It is important that we promise to continue, with renewed effort, our commitment to build in the Church, as Pope Francis puts it, 'a culture of care that says `never again' to any form of abuse.'"

"Changes are necessary so that sins and failures of the past are not repeated," he added.

CNA contacted the press office of the Holy See for comment on the status of any canonical investigation against Hoeppner, but received no response before press time.

Vasek told CNA that, through everything he has experienced, his faith has not been shaken.

"I know that these men are not what Christ envisioned for his Church. Judas betrayed the Lord. People will betray the Lord all the time. I know what the Church teaches."

"I encourage people to keep going to Church," Vasek added.

"I tell everybody, don't leave the Church because of these rotten men. That's just what the devil wants. The devil wants to destroy from within. I say keep going to Church. Keep up with the sacraments. Keep praying. Because Christ's Church is good. Some of the men in it aren't."

"I know who Christ is. He hasn't done anything to me, other than give me hope."

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