Analysis: After investigation, when will Pope Francis act on Hoeppner?

hoeppner Bishop Michael Hoeppner. CNA file photo.

Alongside bishops from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, Bishop Michael Hoeppner met with Pope Francis Tuesday, for a two-hour meeting some bishops called "open," and "hopeful."

But Hoeppner is unique among his brother bishops: he is the first U.S. bishop to be investigated under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 policy from Pope Francis on investigating bishops accused of mishandling or obstructing allegations of clerical sexual abuse. In fact, alongside Hoeppner at the Jan. 13 papal meeting was Archbishop Bernard Hebda, the archbishop who conducted the investigation.

But while the Vatican authorized the investigation in September, and a report was sent to Rome in early November, it is unclear when the Vatican will announce the results of the investigation, and the next steps in the scandal-plagued tenure of Bishop Hoeppner.

There are no legal timeframes in which the Vatican is required to respond to Hebda's report, and no indications of when a response will be issued. But as the question of Hoeppner's future lingers unanswered, the Diocese of Crookston continues to face serious difficulties.

In November, depositions were released in which Hoeppner is seen to admit 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 also include Hoeppner seeming to admit to mishandling 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.

In more recent weeks, sources in the diocese tell CNA, a dispute over a priest removed from ministry for alleged boundary violations has become something of a flash point in the diocese. Several priests have told CNA that in their view, Hoeppner removed Fr. Bryan Kujawa from ministry unjustly, sending him for psychological testing after the anonymous allegation of a boundary violation with an adult - a charge that Kujawa denies. The priest says he has been given no opportunity to defend himself.

Some sources note that Kujawa has been a "voice of conscience" in the diocese, and speculate that the priest has been unfairly targeted by Hoeppner because he has been outspoken about the revelations contained in the November depositions.

While the Kujawa case has apparently become both demoralizing and contentious among Crookston's priests, it has also captured the attention of Crookston's lay Catholics, who have planned prayer vigils outside the cathedral and other demonstrations in support of the priest.

Lay Catholics, in fact, have rented 6 billboards in the Crookston area, by which Catholics are urged to contact Hoeppner and his vicar general "to demand justice for Fr. Bryan Kujawa."

The population of Crookston is 8,000, and 100,000 people live in the "Greater Grand Forks" area. Six billboards in the area represents a considerable investment. But Catholics, at least some Catholics in the area, are angry. Justly or otherwise, Kujawa's suspension has become for some a symbol of Hoeppner's failures.

In short, in the months since Hebda's report on Crookston was filed, controversy continues to unfold in the diocese, and the information contained in the released depositions represents cause for considerable concern, at least with regard to the norms of Vos estis.

Some Catholics in Crookston tell CNA they are simply demoralized; tired of the cloud of scandal hanging over their diocese.

The question for Crookston Catholics is when Pope Francis or the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops will act on what's been reported, and what continues to unfold.

The resignation of Bishop Richard Malone from the Diocese of Buffalo was accepted less than a month after his November visit to the pope, and Malone had also been subject to an investigation before that meeting, though not one conducted under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi.

If Malone's ouster is a template, Catholics in Crookston might expect to hear whether Hoeppner will remain in office within the next few weeks. After months of waiting, any news will likely come as a relief, even if the outcome is less than what some Catholics - those who have called for Hoeppner's removal - are hoping for.

But because Hoeppner's case is the first to be handled completely under the pope's new norms, how it resolves is likely to be seen as a harbinger of the success or failure of those norms. Some Catholics in Crookston are waiting to see how Pope Francis will respond to leadership they see as compromised, and, while they wait for a report on the misdeeds of Theodore McCarrick, Catholics across the U.S. will also be watching.

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