Ousted Minnesota bishop will preside over 'farewell' Mass

News: Vos estis lux mundi

The Minnesota bishop who resigned Tuesday after an investigation into his leadership of the Diocese of Crookston will preside over a farewell Mass at the diocesan cathedral Thursday.

The Mass of Thanksgiving will serve as “farewell to Bishop Michael Hoeppner,” an April 13 memo sent to Crookston priests explained.

Bishop Richard Pates, the retired bishop who will serve as temporary administrator, will concelebrate the Mass.

Hoeppner resigned from diocesan leadership Tuesday at the request of Pope Francis, following an 18-month long investigation into his diocesan leadership, conducted under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi, a set of norms for investigating episcopal misconduct, which were published by Pope Francis in 2019.

The investigation focused on an allegation that Hoeppner “had intentionally interfered with or avoided a canonical or civil investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor,” according to an April 13 statement from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, whose Archbishop Bernard Hebda was charged by the Vatican with conducting the investigation.

Hebda’s initial investigation was completed over two months in 2019, after which the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops instructed the archbishop to widen the scope of his investigation, a process which occupied much of 2020.

“Cumulatively, the investigations took more than 2,000 hours to complete. Hundreds of documents were reviewed, analyzed and compared, including depositions, memoranda, statements, canonical investigative reports, law enforcement reports, letters, emails, policies and publications. Thirty-eight witnesses were interviewed or answered questions in writing,” the archdiocesan statement said.

“Bishop Hoeppner was interviewed on more than one occasion. He also provided written responses to questions. The Delegated Investigator issued three reports and provided relevant documentation totaling 1,533 pages. The reports detailed the evidence gathered, and set forth findings of fact and recommendations.”

“All reports, materials and responses were provided to the Congregation of Bishops for consideration,” the statement added.

The archdiocese directed further questions to the Congregation for Bishops, which, to date, has issued no further information on the investigation.

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On Tuesday afternoon, the Crookston diocese posted on its website a letter from Hoeppner, which included an apology: “I apologize to you, as I have apologized to our Holy Father, for my failures in governing as bishop.”

The bishop said he would “move out of state to a warmer climate” with his sister.

“I look forward to returning to Crookston for personal visits and will await the appointment of a new bishop here to determine other activity,” Hoeppner added.

“You have a bishop who loves you,” he wrote.

Hoeppner was the first U.S. bishops to be investigated under Vos estis lux mundi; investigations into at least four other bishops have since commenced.

The initial investigation focused on charges that in 2015, Hoeppner coerced a Minnesota man named Ron 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.

On Tuesday morning, Vasek told The Pillar he was “overjoyed” to know he had been heard.

“It means to me that perseverance in the truth pays off. And light is being shed on evil,” he said.

The Mass, to be celebrated at 11 a.m. CDT Thursday, will be livestreamed.

This story is developing, and was updated at 5:45 pm on April 13 to include excerpts from Hoeppner’s letter.