SAINT PAUL (MN)
The Catholic Spirit [Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis MN]
April 13, 2021
By Maria Wiering
Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston has resigned, the Holy See announced April 13, following an investigation pursuant to “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), a legislative document Pope Francis personally issued in May 2019.
Statements from the Diocese of Crookston and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis indicate that the resignation was requested by Pope Francis and that it “arose from reports that (Bishop Hoeppner) had at times failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy of the Diocese of Crookston.”
The “motu proprio” (meaning “on his (the pope’s) own initiative”) established universal procedural norms for addressing clergy sexual abuse and a means for holding bishops and other Church leaders accountable for their actions in addressing claims of abuse. In the process set forth in “Vos estis,” an investigation of a bishop is ordinarily directed by the metropolitan archbishop of his region. Since the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis is the metropolitan for the dioceses of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, the investigation of Bishop Hoeppner was entrusted to Archbishop Bernard Hebda in August 2019.
At that time, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops authorized Archbishop Hebda to begin a preliminary investigation of Bishop Hoeppner under “Vos estis” procedures. According to an April 13 clarification issued by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the allegation under investigation was whether Bishop Hoeppner “had intentionally interfered with or avoided a canonical or civil investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.”
With the approval of the Holy See, Archbishop Hebda entrusted the work of the preliminary investigation to Tim O’Malley, director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. O’Malley conducted the investigation with a team of his staff at the archdiocese and in collaboration with two lay experts, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice who serves on the Archdiocesan Finance Council and Corporate Board, and a retired Minnesota state court judge who serves on the Archdiocesan Ministerial Review Board, a consultative group to the archbishop on matters relating to clergy and safe environment standards. Prior to joining the archdiocesan staff in 2014, O’Malley worked as a deputy chief administrative law judge for the State of Minnesota. He is also a former Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension superintendent and FBI agent.
“The Congregation indicated the preliminary investigation was not intended to be a full investigative or canonical process,” said the April 13 clarification from the archdiocese. “Rather, its purpose was to substantiate (or not) the truthfulness of the allegation and, in turn, inform whether subsequent investigative and canonical processes should proceed.”
Neither the April 13 announcements nor previous statements from Archbishop Hebda, who is trained both in canon law and civil law, indicate the specific allegations against Bishop Hoeppner, 71, who served as the seventh bishop of Crookston since 2007 when he was named by Pope Benedict XVI. However, Ron Vasek, a former candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Crookston, has publicly accused Bishop Hoeppner of pressuring him to recant an allegation of sexual abuse against Msgr. Roger Grundhaus, who had held leadership positions in the diocese.
Vasek claims that Msgr. Grundhaus sexually abused him in 1971 when he was a teenager, and that he told Bishop Hoeppner about the abuse in 2009 or 2010, while he was considering entering formation for the permanent diaconate. He said that the bishop told him not to tell anyone about the abuse because it would hurt Msgr. Grundhaus’ reputation. Then, Vasek said, in 2015, Bishop Hoeppner asked him to sign a letter recanting the abuse allegation. He signed the letter, he said, because the bishop had indicated that his refusal would have negative consequences for his son, Father Craig Vasek, a Crookston priest. Vasek had been prepared to be ordained a permanent deacon in 2017, but he said that the bishop thwarted his ordination by asking his pastor to withdraw his support.
Bishop Hoeppner has repeatedly denied the allegation. According to the Diocese of Crookston, the allegation against Msgr. Grundhaus was reported to law enforcement in 2011.
In May 2017, Vasek filed civil lawsuits against Bishop Hoeppner and the Crookston diocese, accusing the bishop of coercion and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Four months later, the diocese announced that Bishop Hoeppner had reached a settlement agreement with Vasek that included a statement that there was no admission of unlawful conduct on the bishop’s part.
Archbishop Hebda’s preliminary investigation of claims against Bishop Hoeppner took about two months. He said he submitted his “votum,” or opinion, to the Congregation for Bishops on Oct. 28, 2019, along with O’Malley’s report on the preliminary investigation’s findings, dated Oct. 26, 2019.
On Jan. 3, 2020, the Congregation asked Archbishop Hebda to pursue further investigation. O’Malley submitted his second report on the investigation to Archbishop Hebda on Oct. 27, 2020. At the same time, O’Malley also requested Bishop Hoeppner answer additional questions. Archbishop Hebda forwarded both the second report and the additional questions to the Congregation. On Jan. 7, Bishop Hoeppner provided written answers to O’Malley’s questions, and O’Malley prepared a third report on the investigation. Archbishop Hebda shared that report with the Congregation.
During the investigation, the Congregation for Bishops transferred Bishop Hoeppner’s “faculty to deal with cases of sexual abuse against clerics of the Diocese of Crookston,” the Diocese of Crookston and Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis jointly stated in February 2020.
The April 13 announcement from the Holy See stated, “The Holy Father has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Crookston, United States of America, presented by Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner, and appointed Bishop Richard Edmund Pates, emeritus of Des Moines, as apostolic administrator sede vacante of the same diocese.” The resignation was publicized in Washington, D.C., at 5 a.m. Central Time by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
The April 13 clarification from the archdiocese’s Office of Communications states that O’Malley’s three reports and related documentation totaled 1,533 pages and that “(c)umulatively, the investigations took more than 2,000 hours to complete. Hundreds of documents were reviewed, analyzed and compared, included depositions, memoranda, statements, canonical investigative reports, law enforcement reports, letters, emails, policies and publications. Thirty-eight witnesses were interviewed or answered questions in writing. Bishop Hoeppner was interviewed on more than one occasion.”
A native of Winona, Bishop Hoeppner was ordained a priest for that diocese in 1975 by Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He holds a licentiate in canon law from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. In Crookston, he succeeded Bishop Victor Balke, who was its bishop from 1976 until his retirement in 2007.
Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Richard Pates, bishop emeritus of Des Moines, Iowa, to serve as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Crookston until a new bishop is named. Bishop Pates, 78, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1968 and served seven years as its auxiliary bishop beginning 2001 before being named to Des Moines in 2008. He retired as bishop of Des Moines in July 2019, but Pope Francis appointed him the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, in December 2019 as its leader, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, took medical leave. When Bishop Conlon resigned in May 2020, Bishop Pates continued to serve as the diocese’s apostolic administrator until Bishop Ronald Hicks was installed as its bishop in September 2020.
The Diocese of Crookston was established in 1909 and includes 14 counties in northwest Minnesota. It serves about 35,000 Catholics through 67 parishes.
MAY 2019 Pope Francis issues “Vos estis lux mundi” (“You are the light of the world”). The legislative document establishes universal procedural norms for addressing clergy sexual abuse and a means for holding bishops accountable for their actions. In a process established by “Vos estis,” an investigation of a bishop accused of mishandling clergy abuse allegations is directed by the metropolitan bishop of his region.
AUGUST 2019 The Congregation for Bishops, a department of the Roman Curia that oversees the selection and appointment of bishops, authorizes Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis to oversee a preliminary investigation into an allegation that Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston had mishandled an allegation of clergy sexual abuse.
OCTOBER 2019 Archbishop Hebda receives a report from his delegated investigator, Tim O’Malley, on the preliminary investigation, and submits the report along with his “votum” to the Congregation for Bishops.
JANUARY 2020 The Congregation for Bishops instructs Archbishop Hebda to pursue further investigation.
OCTOBER 2020 O’Malley submits his second report on the investigation to Archbishop Hebda, as well as further questions he provided Bishop Hoeppner. Both documents are forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops.
JANUARY 2021 Bishop Hoeppner provides his written answers to O’Malley’s questions. O’Malley submits a third report to Archbishop Hebda, which was forwarded along with Bishop Hoeppner’s answers to the Congregation for Bishops.
APRIL 2021 The Holy See announces that Pope Francis has requested and accepted Bishop Hoeppner’s resignation from the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Crookston. Bishop Richard Pates, bishop emeritus of Des Moines, Iowa, will serve as its apostolic administrator until Pope Francis names a new bishop.