Minnesota bishop kept admitted child abuser in ministry, did not investigate allegation of abuse

Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston Credit Diocese of Crookston CNA file photo Bishop Michael Hoeppner. CNA file photo.

Depositions of Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner were released today, in which the bishop admits that he did not properly address an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest that an alleged victim brought to him in 2011.

The depositions, released by attorney Jeff Anderson as part of a settlement agreement, also indicate that Hoeppner mishandled the cases of several priests, including one, presently in active ministry, who admitted to diocesan officials that he had sexually abused a 5-year-old while a teenager.

Hoeppner is the subject of a Vatican investigation into his administration of the Crookston diocese, conducted under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi, 2019 norms from Pope Francis on investigating bishops accused of mishandling or obstructing allegations of clerical sexual abuse.

The first stage of the Vatican investigation was undertaken by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A Nov. 5 statement from the archdiocese said that Hebda sent to Rome last week his findings and recommendations in the case, and is now awaiting further instructions.

Hebda's report "includes all investigative information gathered, as well as summaries, analysis, findings of fact, and recommendations. Final resolution of this matter will be determined in Rome. The next step in the process is for the Congregation for Bishops to determine what other actions, if any, are necessary to reach that resolution," the archdiocese said.

"Several qualified lay persons, including experienced staff from the Archdiocese's Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, conducted the investigation. Other outside lay experts, including a member of the Ministerial Review Board and a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, assisted them," the statement added.

The findings of the Vatican investigation are not expected to be released before the U.S. bishops' conference meets next week, and Hoeppner is expected to attend the meeting.

However, the released depositions reveal details about Hoeppner's leadership of the diocese.

The released depositions and documents show that Rev. Joseph Richards, a current pastor and the diocesan judicial vicar, admitted to diocesan authorities that he had sexually abused a child when he was a teenager, suffers from "sexual compulsivity," and that he has had sexual fantasies involving minors while in ministry as a priest.

Confronted with those facts in a 2018 deposition, Hoeppner said that he felt no need to re-examine his decision to assign the priest to active ministry.

In August, Hoeppner acknowledged that Richards had disclosed abusing a child while he was a teenager, but said that "after his successful completion and discharge from treatment, and having benefitted from the help he received, Father Richards was returned to priestly ministry and has served admirably now and without incident for a total of 29 years."

The depositions also demonstrate that Hoeppner did not exercise oversight of a priest accused of "boundary violations," and judged by mental health professional to be at risk of further violations, whom the bishop placed into priestly ministry without notifying parishioners of allegations made against the him. In the depositions, the bishop said he could not recall whether expert recommendations to prevent the priest from committing further boundary violations had been followed.

That priest, Fr. Patrick Sullivan, was placed on "administrative leave" in 2019 after a new allegation of boundary violations was made against him, reportedly similar to the cases in which he had previously been accused.

An August statement from the diocese acknowledged that Sullivan has been accused of abusing a child, but said that allegation was not substantiated. It did not address the priest's reported history of grooming relationships.

Hoeppner was also asked in 2018 depositions about Fr. Don Braukmann, who died in July.

In 2014, the bishop had received complaints about Braukmann from the safe-environment coordinator in the Crookston diocese, who claimed that the priest had violated "as many as 15 to 20 code of conduct rules," and had a questionable relationship with a young teenager.

While Braukmann was eventually sent for counseling and mental health treatment, the deposition suggests the bishop did not follow recommended protocols when the priest returned to the diocese, and the priest reportedly resumed a grooming relationship with the teenager.

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In the deposition, Hoeppner said he disputed the views of his safe-environment coordinator, and said he did not recall that treatment facility staff classified Braukmann as being at "high risk" of abusing and grooming minors.

The priest remained in ministry until shortly before his death.

The depositions also include Hoeppner's admission of failing to follow the Church's protocols for addressing allegations of clerical sexual abuse against minors, in the case of an allegation that Msgr. Roger Grundhaus abused Ron Vasek, a former diaconal candidate in the diocese.

Vasek spoke at a Nov. 5 press conference.

"I was abused. I reported, I was told to be silent. I was coerced. I have been lied to, and I gave up my diaconate to tell the truth," he said.

"It's disturbing to see the Bishop of Crookston act like that."

Vasek added that before the press conference, he had read depositions of both Hoeppner and the diocesan vicar general, Msgr. Michael Foltz.

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"I had read their depositions and saw the blatant lies and the misuses of trust and power these men had perpetrated. As I read them, I was sickened, as I hope you will be at the dishonesty of these men. The depositions will speak for themselves. These men will be caught in their own lies. Shame on you. You have betrayed our Lord," Vasek added.

Vasek claimed initially that Monsignor Roger Grundhaus, a priest of the Diocese of Crookston, sexually assaulted him in a hotel room in approximately 1971 while the two of them were at a canon law convention in Columbus, Ohio. 

An August statement from the diocese disputes that account, saying there was a not canon law convention in Columbus that year, while Vasek was a minor.

In fact, the alleged abuse took place during the Midwest Regional Canon Law Convention in April 1972, shortly after Vasek had turned 17. According to the canon law in place at the time, the alleged assualt did not constitute the abuse of a minor because Vasek was 17.

The discrepency of dates seems to have led the diocese to keep Grundhaus in ministry without notation of the allegation against him.

But in his deposition, Hoeppner admitted that at the time the abuse was reported to him, before he was aware of the details, he did not order an investigation into the allegation. Nor did he refrain from certifying in 2012 the good character of the priest in a letter to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which indicated that there was no reason to question Grundhaus' integrity.

In his deposition, Hoeppner testified that Vasek came to him in September 2011 to report the abuse. The bishop alleges that he asked Vasek if he wanted it to be made public, and Vasek said "absolutely not."

Canon law requires a bishop to investigate all allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and to involve the diocesan review board, regardless of whether the alleged victim asks for an investigation. Hoeppner said he did initially not do that because Vasek wanted the allegation to remain "confidential."

Hoeppner admitted in the deposition he understood himself to be violating Church norms, but said he did so to maintain confidentiality. It is not clear whether the bishop also violated Minnesota statutes regarding the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

In addition to the bishop's failure to properly handle the allegation of abuse, Vasek alleges, Hoeppner coerced him into recanting his claim.

The bishop called Vasek to his residence for a meeting in Oct. 2015, shortly before Vasek was scheduled to be ordained a deacon.

Vasek claims Hoeppner at that meeting ordered him to sign a letter, printed on diocesan stationary, recanting his allegations against Grundhaus.

The letter 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."

Hoeppner explained that the Fargo diocese had inquired about Vasek's allegation against Grundhaus, and intended to forbid the priest from exercising ministry within its territory, Vasek told CNA last year.

"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."

Vasek said that also 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."

Feeling coerced into doing so, Vasek signed the letter.

A priest in the Crookston diocese told CNA he believes Hoeppner coerced Vasek into recanting his claim against Grundhaus so that the priest would not need to included on a court-ordered list of  alleged to have abused children prior to 1985.

Hoeppner said in his deposition that he during the meeting he offered to let Vasek put down his accusation in writing for the vicar general, but denies the claim that Vasek was being coerced.

The bishop also testified that he didn't have the letter prepared in advance, but rather he had Vasek come back the next morning to sign it. He admitted that it was his idea to have Vasek sign the letter, and claimed that he didn't save the file for the letter on his computer because it was "confidential." He then, when shown a copy of the letter, claimed that he had Vasek backdate it for the previous day because that was the date they allegedly had their meeting.

He testified that he left Grundhaus' name off the list of accused priests because, in his mind, no accusation had yet been brought forth- the accusation he had heard from Vasek in 2011 was still "confidential," he said.

He added that he didn't have the court order in mind "at all" when he met with Vasek in Oct. 2015.

During the Nov. 5 press conference, attorney Jeff Anderson called for the removal of Hoeppner from his post as Bishop of Crookston.

In a Nov. 5 statement, the diocese said that Hoeppner has "fully cooperated" with the canonical investigation into his leadership, and with the conditions of its recent legal settlements.

Regarding the investigation, the diocese said that "we await a response and remain hopeful that justice will prevail for all impacted by this action."

In July, after a legal settlement was reached, Hoeppner offered another statement.

"To all victims and survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, as the Bishop of Crookston I apologize for the harm done to you by those entrusted with your spiritual care. Although you can never be fully compensated for your suffering, we are thankful this litigation has now come to a good end and are hopeful this settlement offers you justice and will be helpful for healing."

For his part, Vasek called for broader reforms.

"There is a huge problem in the Church. Active homosexual activity by priests and the secrecy of this sin must be revealed, and the holy priesthood must be restored to what Jesus said it ought to be," Vasek said.

"The dark secret coverup of homosexual behavior has been under the radar for many years. Now the darkness is coming to light," he added.

Vasek also discussed the effects of the abuse he suffered.

For a long time, he said, "I was suffering from the disordered belief that it was my fault, what happened." That belief led Vasek to struggles with alcohol and confusion about his own sexuality, and even to have insecurities about caring for his children.

"Not understanding the effects of my abuse prevented me from becoming the father I should have been."

While Vasek promised prayers for his abuser and his bishop, he also had a message for them.

"To the priests who have caused this: shame on you."

"All of you priests, bishops, and cardinals who have forgotten your sacred vows, and allowed this abuse to continue: shame on you."

This story is developing and will be updated.

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