Cozzens tapped to lead embattled Crookston diocese

News: Diocese of Crookston

A long-serving auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been appointed diocesan bishop in the embattled Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, which earlier this year saw its bishop resign after a Vatican-ordered investigation.

The Holy See announced Oct. 18 that Bishop Andrew Cozzens has been appointed to replace Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who resigned in April after he was investigated for improperly handling abuse claims. Hoeppner was the first U.S. bishop to face an investigative process approved by Pope Francis after the 2018 scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Cozzens, who became an auxiliary bishop in 2013, will be installed the Bishop of Crookston Dec. 6. 

The bishop, 53, is chair of the USCCB’s evangelization and catechesis committee, and is well-known for his work in apostolates related to evangelization, youth ministry, and parish renewal. He is currently leading a national Eucharistic revival project undertaken by the U.S. bishops’ conference. 

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Local Catholics told The Pillar Oct. 18 they were enthusiastic about Cozzens’ appointment.

Fr. Robert Schreiner, a Crookston priest who had at one time been Hoeppner’s chancellor, said he is praising God for the appointment.

“The profound wisdom of the appointment of this holy bishop for our diocese at this time in our history leaves me speechless. It is clearly from the Holy Spirit, to whom this great man is so beautifully docile,” Schreiner said.

“I am beyond elated. For me, hope is reborn,” the priest added.

Cozzens will face no shortage of challenges in Crookston, a small, rural diocese in northwestern Minnesota. Its outgoing bishop was accused of coercing a local Catholic man to recant an allegation of clerical abuse, and allowed a priest to remain in parish ministry after he admitted to diocesan authorities that he had sexually abused a child when he was a teenager, and that he has had sexual fantasies involving minors while in ministry as a priest.

Hoeppner admitted in a 2019 deposition that he had failed to follow Church procedures and civil laws regarding abuse reporting

Local Catholics had protested Hoeppner’s ministry in the diocese, even renting billboards in the area to protest his removal of a locally-beloved priest.

After he resigned, Hoeppner offered a terse apology to the diocese in a homily at a farewell Mass he offered in the diocesan cathedral.

“I certainly apologize to you and everyone, as I have apologized to our Holy Father, for any failures that are mine as governing — as bishop,” Hoeppner said April 15.

During that Mass, Hoeppner said his ministry in the diocese had been “a real joy and a treat.”

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Cozzens is widely regarded as a pastoral figure, and is a member of the Companions of Christ, the Minnesota chapter of a network of fraternal associations for priests. The bishop is expected to emphasize fraternity and prayer among Crookston’s priests, and a focus on evangelization. He is also expected to face the damage wrought by his predecessor head-on — the bishop has been praised by some victims of clerical sexual abuse for his pastoral ministry on that front

Gina Barthel, a Minnesota Catholic who was sexually abused by a priest as an adult, credits Cozzens with helping her find a renewal of faith after a period of hopelessness.

Cozzens “has been the conduit God has chosen to use to bring me back into a free and even deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church,” she said in 2019.

“Eucharistic adoration is where I have received the majority of my healing,” she added.

“Bishop Cozzens helped get me to a place to be able to go there and ask Jesus the hard questions and to sit and wait and listen for the answers. That's the awesome thing about Jesus, if we ask, if we wait, He will speak to us.”

Barthel, who lives in the Twin Cities region, said Monday that after Cozzens’ appointment was announced, he called her “to reassure me that he is not abandoning me.”

“That’s the kind of shepherd he is,” she said, adding that she expects Cozzens will help bring healing to a diocese harmed by its outgoing leadership, “and that gives me joy.”

If he does help bring healing, the plan will likely involve calling for increased devotion to the Eucharist, and deeper lives of prayer.

Cozzens told The Pillar in June that the Eucharist has been the center of his life since childhood.

“Even as a young kid, serving Mass, the source of my vocation was kneeling close to the altar and recognizing Jesus's presence on the altar and realizing I wanted to be close to him...for my whole life. And I began to realize that that was the essence of a priestly vocation,” the bishop said.

“I've always loved the line from Cardinal Ratzinger, who preached a homily at an ordination where he talked about the great privilege a priest has to hold the Eucharist in his hands every day. And he said that if you will entrust yourself to Jesus in the Eucharist every day, if you will celebrate Mass with reverence every day, then the Eucharist will transform you. It will change you because it's too powerful not to.”

An early part of Cozzens’ service as an auxiliary bishop in the Twin Cities involved being part of a 2014 team asked to look into accusations related to personal misconduct and the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by then-Archbishop John Nienstedt.

The archbishop ordered his auxiliary bishops, Cozzens and Bishop Lee Piché, to look into accusations against him in a controversial process that at one point involved suggestions that at one point the then-papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, had ordered the investiagtion stopped.

In 2015, both Neinstedt and Piché resigned after criminal charges were filed again the archdiocese for the mishandling of clerical abuse allegations. Those charges were subsequently dropped.

Cozzens later said that the investigation was “doomed to fail.”

“We did not have enough objectivity or experience with such investigations. Nor did we have authority to act. Throughout our efforts, we did not know where we could turn for assistance, because there was no meaningful structure to address allegations against bishops,” he wrote in 2018.

"As a practical matter, bishop-led investigations have mixed credibility in the public domain: some inevitably believe the accused bishop is being treated unfairly; others believe he is receiving preferential treatment," Cozzens wrote. "A fair resolution becomes unachievable. The accuser deserves better. We all deserve better."

In response to scandals like that of Archbishop Neinstedt and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, in 2019, Pope Francis issued Vos estis lux mundi, which established new norms for the handling of accusations of personal misconduct and failure to properly act against accusations of clerical abuse.