CROOKSTON, Minn. — Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner is the first in the nation to be investigated under new rules implemented this summer by Pope Francis that aim to standardize the protocol for investigating clergy sexual abuse.
An allegation surfaced publicly in 2017 that Hoeppner allowed abuse to continue by silencing a victim. Ronald Vasek named the bishop in a civil suit that also included allegations of sexual assault by Monsignor Roger Grundhaus.
The Crookston Diocese declined to comment on the investigation but noted that Hoeppner remains in office.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced Wednesday, Sept. 11, it will begin the investigation. Pope Francis called for worldwide action and implemented legislation to create a mandatory and standardized reporting process to address claims of sexual abuse and protect the reporting party. The law went into effect in June.
The Archdiocese said the investigation is preliminary, and evidence will be brought to the pope’s U.S. representative to decide if further inquiry is warranted.
The diocese reached a $5 million settlement in July with 15 victims who reported sexual abuse at the hands of Father James Bernauer, Father James Porter, Father Patrick Sullivan, Father Stanley Bourassa, Father James Vincent Fitzgerald and Grundhaus. The abuse allegedly spanned from 1969 until 2009.
Most of the lawsuits were brought because Minnesota opened up a three-year period that allowed child victims to come forward with old claims that normally would be barred by the statute of limitations.
Vasek’s lawsuit was included in the settlement, although an individual charge against Hoeppner was settled separately. He said allegations that Hoeppner tried to cover up the abuse are what spurred the Archdiocese’s investigation. Vasek said Hoeppner asked him to remain quiet and coerced him to sign a letter denying the abuse.
Criminal and church investigations also were launched. Hoeppner previously denied in written statements that he coerced Vasek to remain quiet about the abuse. The Crookston Diocese declined to comment Wednesday.
Hoeppner wrote a column for the diocese’s publication several days after the settlement was reached that said claims against Richards, Sullivan and Grundhaus were deemed “not credible” and the men will not be included in the list of priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse. The men were accused of abuse in the civil cases included in the $5 million settlement.
“I think it’s sinful,” Vasek said. “Why would they reach a settlement in a sex abuse case if there wasn’t some semblance of guilt involved? People don’t settle lawsuits if they’re innocent — I sure wouldn’t. I would fight to the end to clear myself. So for them to say these are noncredible allegations just shows the absolute callousness of these guys toward victims of sexual abuse. That’s the part that’s worse than anything — the lack of care.”
As the lawsuits were pending, the diocese reinstated Sullivan, who was placed on administrative leave after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teen in 2008. The Diocesean Review Board deemed the allegations were not credible, although the case was included in the settlement.
Another allegation of misconduct involving a minor was brought forward in February and Sullivan again was placed on administrative leave. Communications Director Janelle Gergen told Forum News Service in February that a report of “boundary issues” was made involving Sullivan. She said the diocese would consider a boundary issue to include language or actions “that would serve to benefit the needs of the giver rather than to serve the needs of the receiver.”
Gergen said the incident was neither criminal nor sexual. Sullivan is still on leave and retains status within the diocese as a senior priest.
Vasek, who is the only victim to publicly speak out about the Crookston Diocese, said the settlement brought some victims peace, but true justice is yet to come. He said he hopes to see more investigations into other members of the clergy and prays “that Bishop Hoeppner — for the sake of his soul — tells these investigators the truth.”
The church is mandated to release the documents and depositions involved in the legal proceedings to the public as part of the settlement. Vasek said the court records will illuminate abuse and a number of other wrongdoings by previously unnamed clergy members.
Vasek said he’s spent the last few years trying to bring attention to the sexual abuse and church officials’ “cover-up of it and silencing of victims. And the whole ugly mess that it is.
“Now, finally that light of truth will hopefully be presented. And it’s serious enough that the Archdiocese is investigating. … I am, I don’t know the right word — I’m not elated. I’m not happy, but I feel that vindication is coming and I will feel vindicated for my efforts over the last two and a half years. All I wanted was the truth.”