Probe of Crookston bishop in month 15, while Catholics urge action

News: 'Vos estis lux mundi'

More than 15 months into the first U.S. investigation of a bishop under norms approved by Pope Francis, the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, says it has no update on the progress of the case. 

Sources in the Crookston diocese tell The Pillar that the investigation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner has become a far-reaching probe into several abuse and misconduct cases handled by the bishop, and that the probe is widely expected in Crookston to lead to Hoeppner’s ouster. 

But a Crookston man who claims Hoeppner forced him to recant an abuse claim says that while he trusts the American investigators overseeing the process, he is not confident the Vatican will resolve the case justly.

“Let’s just say I trust the local guys, I don’t trust the big guys,” Ron Vasek told The Pillar Jan. 14. 

“They can do all the investigating they want here, but the Vatican’s track record on dealing with this is really terrible. Guys that should be in jail are still in ministry,” Vasek said.

Vasek is a crucial witness in the investigation of Crookston’s Hoeppner, who in September 2019 became the first U.S. bishop to be investigated under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi, a set of norms approved by Pope Francis earlier that year. 

The norms set a process by which metropolitans - regional archbishops - can be called upon to investigate charges of abuse, misconduct, or negligence on the part of nearby diocesan bishops. 

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Hoeppner is being investigated by a team led by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is widely credited with a major cleanup of the archdiocese after his predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, resigned in 2015 amid scandal. 

The investigation into Hoeppner began with a charge that in 2015 he coerced Vasek, then studying to become a deacon in the diocese, to recant a claim that when he was a teenager, a Crookston priest molested him. 

Vasek first told Hoeppner about the abuse in 2011.

In depositions released in November 2019, Hoeppner testified that he failed to order an investigation when Vasek first told him he had been abused, and that he did not contact the police. 

Hoeppner admitted he knew his omission violated canonical norms, and said he did so because Vasek wanted confidentiality.

Hoeppner also admitted it was his idea for Vasek to sign a letter in 2015 recanting the abuse claim, but says Vasek wanted to recant the allegation. The bishop denied that he forced Vasek to sign the statement.

Vasek says he was forced to sign it, and had no intention of walking back his allegation. 

He claims Hoeppner coerced him into recanting the allegation by implying that he might not be ordained without doing so, and that his son, a priest in the diocese, could suffer retribution because of the claim.

The Crookston diocese and Vasek reached a legal settlement over his claim, but Vasek told The Pillar that his concern is with justice in the Church, not with lawsuits.

“My concern is for the faithful priests of this diocese. Priests who are faithful to the truth are being punished,” Vasek said, adding that in his estimation, “the morale of the priests in the Crookston diocese is about a negative 6,000.”

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In February 2020, the Diocese of Crookston announced that the Vatican had ordered local investigators to extend their probe into Hoeppner’s leadership, looking beyond the Vasek case into other situations in the diocese. 

The diocese also announced that Hoeppner would not be permitted to oversee sexual abuse cases in his diocese during the follow-up investigation.

Several sources in the Crookston diocese told The Pillar that investigators, who include a former Minnesota judge and retired police investigator, have been looking into the cases of other priests in the diocese accused of misconduct, making enquiries into those cases as recently as December. The investigators are reportedly focusing on Hoeppner’s compliance with canon and civil law while handling the cases.

Among cases believed to be under review is that of Fr. Pat Sullivan, a Crookston priest who was in 2019 placed on administrative leave and sent for an assessment, after an allegation of boundary violations was made against him.

The depositions released in 2019 demonstrate that Hoeppner did not exercise oversight over Sullivan when he had been previously accused of similar violations, and then judged by mental health professionals to be a risk for further violations. 

Hoeppner placed Sullivan into parish ministry without notifying parishioners of the allegations made against him. In the depositions, Hoeppner said he could not remember whether expert recommendations to prevent Sullivan from committing further boundary violations had been followed.

An August 2019 statement from Hoeppner acknowledged that Sullivan had previously 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.

Sources in the diocese questioned whether Hoeppner’s handling of Fr. Joseph Richards might also be under review by investigators. 

Richards is a parish pastor in the Crookston diocese who remained in 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.

In both a deposition and a public statement, Hoeppner defended a decision allowing Richards to remain in parish ministry, even when he acknowledged publicly in 2019 that Richards had disclosed abusing a child while he was a teenager.

Hoeppner said that “after his successful completion and discharge from treatment, and having benefited 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.” 

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One priest in the diocese told The Pillar that while a thorough review on those cases is important, the archbishop should by now have more than enough information to urge the Vatican to act on Hoeppner, even as investigations continue.

“The lay people of the Diocese of Crookston are fed up and waiting to hear,” the priest told The Pillar. “This particular investigation is straining credibility at this point for Vos estis.

Vasek said he too was eager for the investigation to conclude. 

“I’m very frustrated, but whether I’m frustrated or not isn’t going to make it go faster,” Vasek told The Pillar.

Despite the length of the investigation, Vasek told The Pillar he believes Hebda should be commended for overseeing a thorough process.

“Archbishop Hebda is not only a canon lawyer, he’s also a civil lawyer. The investigators he has working on this are top-flight investigators,” Vasek said. 

“When they interviewed me, they were extremely professional and interested in getting to the facts. I think they’re doing the investigation as thoroughly as possible because, over a year later, they’re still pulling the yarn out of the ball, still investigating things.”

But Vasek told The Pillar he believes even an exhaustive investigation may not convince Vatican officials to remove both Hoeppner and his vicar general from office, which Vasek believes is necessary. 

Recalling his own allegation of sexual abuse by a priest, Vasek has said he believes a central part of the Church’s abuse problem is “predatory homosexual priests.” And, he told The Pillar, he is not optimistic that Vatican leaders want to face that problem.

In 2018, Pope Francis said that “homosexuality is a very serious issue” to be addressed among candidates for priesthood. 

“Homosexual priests” should not create “scandal in their communities or for the holy people of God by living a double life,” the pope added.

"It would be better if they left the ministry or consecrated life rather than live a double life," he said.

But Vasek is skeptical the Vatican is addressing the issue.

“There is a homosexual network among priests who...don’t want to see results emerge,” Vasek believes. 

“I just have a hard time thinking they’re going to take problems with homosexuality seriously,” Vasek said, mentioning allegations of predatory homosexual behavior on the part of priests and bishops, similar to his own allegation of abuse.

“It’s frustrating to see how non-engaged the Holy See is on this,” Vasek said. 

As regards the investigation into Hoeppner, “my fear is the Vatican is going to just pooh-pooh it. Not enough evidence or whatever. How long did it take them to get something out with McCarrick?” he asked.

“[Archbishop Hebda] can send the information over there, but the big guys will say ‘Oh no, we’re not going to worry about it, it’s just Crookston, not a big deal.’”

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The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told The Pillar Jan. 15 it has no update on the investigation into Hoeppner.

While Hoeppner was the first U.S. bishop subject to an investigation under Vos estis lux mundi, he is not the only one. 

Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose is being investigated under Vos estis, though details of the allegations against him are not clear.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan was instructed Jan. 7, 2020 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to conduct an investigation into Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. With that investigation now lasting more than a year, The Pillar requested a status report from the Archdiocese of New York, but has not yet received a response.

For his part, Vasek said his frustration does not dampen his faith.

“I pray everyday for an end to this,” he told The Pillar.

“It’s not Christ that disappoints me, it’s the men. The bad guys. The guys in it for power, and not in it to be pastoral servants.”