'This is a warning' - Hoeppner out after Vos Estis probe

News: Diocese of Crookston

More than 18 months after the first U.S. investigation of a bishop under norms approved by Pope Francis, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota resigned his office April 13 at the request of Pope Francis.

Bishop Michael Hoeppner in 2007. Courtesy photo.

The man who says Hoeppner coerced him into recanting an abuse claim says the resignation is “a victory for all those who have been unheard for all these years, and have had to put up with the abuse by the higher-ups when they told their stories and weren’t heard.”

“It’s a victory for all those who have been abused by sinful men in the Church — a victory for the faithful people of Christ’s Church, and a victory for truth,” Ron Vasek told The Pillar Tuesday morning.

The Crookston diocese announced April 13 that “the investigation which led to the acceptance of Bishop Hoeppner’s resignation arose from reports that he had at times failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy of the Diocese of Crookston.”

Hoeppner announced Tuesday that he would celebrate a “farewell” Mass in the Crookston cathedral on Thursday.

Bishop Richard Pates will serve as the temporary apostolic administrator of the diocese.

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Hoeppner became in September 2019 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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

Bishop Hoeppner “lost his servanthood,” he added.

“When you lose what you’re ordained for as a deacon — and you lose the attitude of a servant, power goes to your head, and God ceases to be the focal point of your life. Instead it’s ‘me.’ And that’s what happened here.”

“He forgot he was a servant.”

Fr. Robert Schreiner, a Crookston priest who had at one time been Hoeppner’s chancellor and had been an advocate for Vasek in the diocese, told The Pillar he is relieved.

“I am glad for Ron and Patti to finally have this day in which the cloud breaks and they feel heard. They have waited a very long time. I’ve been waiting since March 18, 2017, when Ron told Patti and me his whole story for the first time, but he has been waiting for decades to be heard.”

Noting the “extraordinary pain” the Vaseks have experienced, Schreiner told The Pillar that “today is a day of gladness in their hearts, and the clouds are broken for them.”

In addition to Vasek’s claim, Hoeppner’s handling of other cases in the diocese were reportedly investigated during the 18-month probe into his leadership.

Among them is the situation of Fr. Joseph Richards, 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.

Vasek said Hoeppner’s resignation is a first step toward accountability in the Church.

“Let this be a warning to those in charge who want to continue to punish and abuse survivors even after the initial abuse.”

“This is a warning.

“Hopefully now the Church is now done tolerating cover-ups and the mishandling of these cases,” he added.

Vasek said that while he “trusted Archbishop Hebda,” who conducted the investigation, he was skeptical Hoeppner would actually be removed from the diocese.

“I am thankful to Archbishop Hebda and his team, for doing a complete and thorough investigation for the truth. I am very happy that truth prevails, and that the darkness of evil doesn’t.”

“But I was shocked. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t have bet this way. But somehow God prevailed.”

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