CROOKSTON, Minnesota, February 5, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – An abuse victim is calling on the Vatican to remove a U.S. bishop who the victim says blackmailed him into keeping silent about how a priest in the diocese allegedly abused the victim when he was a teen.
Bishop Michael Hoeppner is the first Catholic bishop to be investigated under new sexual abuse guidelines issued by Pope Francis last year. Court evidence reveals that Bishop Hoeppner, of the diocese of Crookston in Minnesota, approved the accused priest for ministry, claiming that he was “unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable for work with minor children” despite knowing the victim’s testimony of being sexually abused by this priest.
Video testimony of the bishop during a 2018 deposition hearing that was released in November also shows that Hoeppner would be unwilling to reexamine the parish assignment of a priest despite being shown a report from 1993 where the priest in question admitted to having problems with masturbation and pornography, said that he had “fantasies about abusing a child” and that his “sexual fantasizing would become out of control whenever he would go out of town.”
Video testimony of the bishop also reveals that he saw no problem in putting a priest “back into ministry” who had “boundary issues” with other people in the form of unwanted touching.
The Vatican announced yesterday that the investigation is still ongoing and has made no indication of removing the bishop from his post.
Sexual abuse victim Ron Vasek says that after carrying the burden of his abuse alone for 40 years, he told Bishop Hoeppner about his being sexually abused by a priest of the diocese that happened when he was about 16 years old.
Vasek says that Hoeppner first told him to keep silent about the abuse and, years later, asked him to sign a letter renouncing his claim. Vasek even claims that Hoeppner threatened both him and his son (a priest of the Crookston diocese) if he refused to sign the letter.
In response to the threats Vasek signed the letter, but in 2017 launched a lawsuit against Hoeppner and the diocese of Crookston, accusing the bishop of (among other things) coercion.
Vasek told LifeSite that he “hopes that the Vatican will see with clear eyes what’s really going on in this diocese, about the bishop’s intimidation, about his obstruction and about his disregard for canon and ecclesial law.”
“I would like to see him removed for his actions,” he said.
A Vatican investigation into Bishop Hoeppner was launched in September 2019, with the bishop facing charges that he impeded a police or canonical investigation of clerical sexual misconduct in his diocese.
In November 2019, deposition documents and videos from 2018 were released showing Hoeppner responding to questions about his handling of Vasek’s allegation and where he seems to admit to mishandling the cases of several priests, including one presently in active ministry who told diocesan officials that, as a teenager, he had sexually abused a 5-year-old.
The deposition documents and videos became available after a settlement was reached in July 2019, in which $5 million was awarded across 15 sex-abuse lawsuits filed against the diocese, including Vasek’s case against the abusing priest, Fr. Grundhaus.
Along with several other bishops, Hoeppner met with Pope Francis earlier this month during the bishops’ customary ad limina visit. It is not at this stage known when the results of the Vatican’s investigation into him will be released.
LifeSite has written to His Excellency Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S.A., to enquire whether in light of the serious nature of the evidence shown in the depositions whether any consideration has been given to suspending Hoeppner until the Vatican investigations are concluded. No response has been given.
Vasek claims that in either 1971, or 1972 then Father [now Monsignor] Grundhaus jumped into his bed and fondled his genitals while the two were sharing a hotel room, after Vasek had driven Grundhaus to a canon law convention in Columbus, Ohio. Vasek says that the abuse he received while a teenager has affected him for the rest of his life and “shattered” his understanding of fatherhood.
After years of not knowing how to deal with what happened to him, Vasek says he decided to open up to a priest in 2010 when he began thinking about becoming a deacon in the Diocese of Crookston. He was then contacted by Hoeppner, his local bishop, and first told him about the incident with Grundhaus in 2010 or 2011 (Vasek and Hoeppner dispute the year this meeting occurred).
Speaking of that first meeting with Hoeppner, Vasek said: “So the bishop, he just kind of, he just chews on me for five minutes.” Vasek told CNA that Hoeppner told him that Grundhaus was a great priest, and that a “claim” about the matter could be very expensive. Vasek says Hoeppner asked him if he intended to make a formal complaint, to which Vasek replied: “I just want to know if I can get through the diaconate program, knowing this information.”
Vasek told Church Militant that Hoeppner then replied to him: “If you don’t say anything, nobody will know.”
Despite Vasek’s accusation of sexual abuse, Hoeppner signed a letter in 2012 confirming Grundhaus was fit to exercise a public ministry.
“He is a person of good moral character and reputation. I know of nothing which would in any way limit or disqualify him from his ministry. I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable for work with minor children,” the bishop wrote of the priest.
During the 2018 deposition hearing, Hoeppner was challenged by attorney Jeff Anderson as to why, despite knowing of Vasek’s allegation, he had signed a letter saying that he didn’t know of anything that would disqualify Grundhaus from ministry, or make him unsuitable for working with children. Hoeppner repeatedly said that he did so in order to respect Vasek’s request for confidentiality.
At one point during the depositions, Anderson asked Hoeppner: “wouldn't the accusation Ron Vasek made to you…that Grundhaus had abused him as a teenager, disqualify him from ministry?”
Hoeppner replied: “Mr. Vasek asked for complete confidentiality and did not want to bring forward an accusation and I respected that.”
Later in the depositions, Anderson asked Hoeppner why he had signed the letter in 2012 saying that he knew of no reason that would render Grundhaus “unsuitable for work with minor children.”
Hoeppner responded: “I’m respecting the confidentiality. That's why I signed that.”
Anderson replied: “so you are using a claim of Ron Vasek’s confidentiality to protect not only Grundhaus but the diocese at Cookston from avoiding a scandal.”
Hoeppner declined to answer that question.
By 2015, when Vasek next had a significant meeting with Hoeppner about Grundhaus, Vasek had been studying for the diaconate for several years. Vasek’s son, Craig, was ordained as a priest of the diocese of Crookston in 2010.
Vasek says that Hoeppner called him and asked him to come to his home the very same day. When he arrived Hoeppner asked him to sign a pre-written letter renouncing his accusation against Grundhaus. Vasek says he told Hoeppner that the letter was a lie.
He claims that Hoeppner then said to him: “If the scandal of Grundhaus gets out, how could I ordain you? Who would want you? Where would I put you? And besides, it would be very difficult for your son.”
“I knew at that moment he was blackmailing me”, Vasek said in a May 2017 press conference announcing his lawsuit against Hoeppner for coercion. “And my son had just gotten his first parish … I signed that letter to protect my son, because I knew how evil a man the bishop could be.”
In February 2017, Vasek says he was recommended for ordination as a deacon by the Diocesan Diaconate Committee and by his own pastor, Fr. Ilango. Later that year, an unsigned letter from Fr. Ilango recommended that Vasek’s ordination should be delayed by a year.
Vasek, who was never ordained, launched his first lawsuit against Hoeppner in May 2017.
Vasek told LifeSite that he had no choice but to forgo pursuing his ordination since he knew that after deciding to go public with his claims, he would have risked his credibility if he had agreed to be ordained by Hoeppner.
When the coercion charges of that lawsuit were settled in September 2017, Hoeppner said in a statement that he had been willing to ordain Vasek, but that Vasek had refused.
Vasek had met Hoeppner to discuss his ordination to the diaconate in April. On that occasion, he was joined by his wife Patty. Vasek says that during that meeting, Hoeppner did not say that he would ordain him, but was clear that he controlled his future as a deacon. On his personal website, Vasek has said that he felt that “the threat of coercion was being continued by Hoeppner.”
Vasek told LifeSiteNews that throughout that meeting with Hoeppner, the bishop had stressed the essentiality of obedience in the role of a deacon. Vasek said, “I couldn’t be ordained and be obedient to a man who had threatened my son, threatened my ordination and coerced me to sign a letter against my will.”
Vasek told LifeSite that in addition to the five years of study for the diaconate, he had also been preparing himself spiritually for five years beforehand. He said he was “crushed” when he realized he would not be ordained. “My goal was to become a deacon” he said, “I had tried to bury the abuse for years, but finally the Holy Spirit just kept telling me that this had to be resolved. So it crushed me, but it didn’t break me.”
Video evidence from the 2018 deposition hearing suggests that the Bishop mishandled priests with sexual problems.
Priest who fantasized about abusing children
In one of the videos from the deposition, Hoeppner says that he would not be willing to reexamine the assignment in ministry of Fr. Joseph Richards, a current pastor and the diocesan judicial vicar, despite being shown a 1993 psycho/social history report of Richards where Richards admits he had “fantasies about abusing a child” and that he felt an “attraction toward children.” Richards had been ordained a priest in 1989.
Richards admits in the report that his sexual fantasizing “would become out of control” and that “he feels that he has problems with sexual compulsivity and considers himself to be ‘sexually addicted.’”
The report goes on to note that Richards “admits to feeling somewhat confused regarding his sexuality. He feels that his masturbation, need for pornography, and sexual fantasizing would become out of control whenever he would go out of town. When he began to have fantasies about abusing a child and felt an attraction toward children, he decided to voluntarily seek help.”
Having been presented with the report, Hoeppner was asked by Anderson if “the reading of this and seeing this in a psychosexual evaluation caused you to be willing to re-examine his assignment in ministry given this professional assessment and his self-report?”
Hoeppner replied: “not at this time, no.”
Hoeppner claimed in the deposition that he had never seen the psychosexual evaluation of the report before. Monsignor Foltz, the current vicar general of the diocese, acknowledged during the deposition that he was aware of the report. When asked why he hadn’t informed Hoeppner he said, “He [Hoeppner] wasn’t in the – – in the diocese”. When he was then asked why he didn’t “alert the bishop of the letter,” Foltz said: “I don’t — didn’t recall”. Anderson asked Hoeppner whether he thought he “should go back and ask Monsignor Foltz why he didn’t tell you about the psycho/sexual that appears in the file of Richards.” Hoeppner responded: “I don’t know.”
The released deposition documents also show that Richards had admitted in the 1990s to Hoeppner’s predecessor, Bishop Balke, and to Monsignor Foltz to having sexually abused a 5 year-old boy when he was 15 years old.
During the November 2018 depositions, Foltz was shown a letter which he admits was written by him, although he claimed not to remember the facts that the letter detailed. The letter reads “16, or 17 years ago, he – Joe [Fr. Joseph Richards] at the age of about 15, sexually abused a five – or six-year-old boy he was babysitting.”
Foltz was asked by his examiner Elin Lindstrom esq.: “Reading this now, do you feel that Father Richards’ file should be gone back through to evaluate whether he should be in ministry right now, knowing that there’s an allegation in his file that he admitted to?”
Foltz: “As a child, as a teenager?”
Foltz: “Well it’s always helpful to bring everything together and re-evaluate.”
Lindstrom: “The letter indicates that the meeting was also with Bishop Balke. Do you know if Bishop Balke did anything in response to this report?”
Foltz: “I think our response was for them – – for him to deal with it at St. Michael’s, the aftercare program.”
Bishop Hoeppner issued a statement in August 2019 outlining these details about Fr. Richards, but going on to say that he has “served admirably now and without incident for a total of 29 years.”
LifeSite has written to Bishop Hoeppner to ask if there are any other priests currently in ministry in the diocese with a known history of having either abused a minor while they were themselves a minor, or having admitted, while a priest, to having fantasies about abusing a child. No response was provided.
In his pyscho/social history report, Richards claims he was sexually abused when he was a child by his great-uncle. The doctor who compiled the report noted: “His sexual preoccupation also appears to be interfering with his daily life and may be bordering on compulsive. His fantasies regarding children, while not uncommon for sexual abuse victims, are disturbing and should be treated as a cry for help.”
Richards was on a leave of absence from Crookston diocese between 1993 and 1997 while he received treatment and participated in aftercare programs before returning to public ministry in 1997.
Priest with ‘boundary issues’
In another of the released videos, Hoeppner is shown being questioned about his decision to return Fr. Patrick Sullivan to public ministry in the diocese. Sullivan had been removed from public ministry over reports of “boundary issues,” but had later returned to ministry with the bishop's approval.
A 2009 psychological evaluation of Sullivan noted that he admitted that he “struggles at times with understanding the appropriate boundaries with physical touch, which is of particular concern because he will be expected to interact with middle school age students at his next assignment.” The report advised that “without boundary education, both Father Sullivan and those with whom he interacts may be at risk.” Sullivan reportedly refused to go for treatment.
Sullivan’s 2009 psychiatric discharge summary also noted: “Father quickly demonstrated his difficulty with boundaries. He touched staff and residents repeatedly without asking, even beginning to give residents shoulder and back massages without apparent appreciation of what this might mean to them.”
In the 2018 recorded depositions, Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clerical abuse cases, is shown questioning Hoeppner about his decision not to provide the police with Sullivan’s psychiatric records and to allow Sullivan to return to public ministry.
Anderson asks: “Did you instruct Baumgartner [Hoeppner’s former vicar general and chief advisor] to give these reports, exhibits nine and sixteen to the police?”
Hoeppner responds: “Not to my recollection.”
Anderson asks: “In fact, the diocese withheld them from the police, didn't they?”
Hoeppner responds: “I just answered. I don't recall instructing Father Baumgartner to give them that material.”
Later Anderson says: “When you returned Sullivan to ministry, did you ever tell anybody in the parish, either today or in the past that he has a history of boundary violations, and he refused to go to treatment as recommended by professionals? Did you ever tell anybody that?”
Hoeppner responds: ”What was the question?”
Anderson says: ”Did you ever tell the people about the risk that was discerned by the professionals?”
Hoeppner responds: ”We take all things into consideration. We make a determination to put the man back into ministry. That's what was done.”
In February 2019, Sullivan was placed on “administrative leave” due to a “report that involved a boundary issue”. Bishop Hoeppner said in a statement at the time that “[t]he issue was non-sexual and non-criminal in nature” but that the “Diocesan Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, after reviewing the matter, has recommended to me that Fr. Pat go for assessment and in-patient treatment.”
It turns out that Sullivan has been placed on administrative leave before. In April 2016, a civil lawsuit was filed against the Crookston diocese alleging that Sullivan sexually abused a 15-year-old boy while working at the St. Mary's Mission Church in Red Lake, Minnesota, during 2008.
In December 2017, Sullivan was reinstated into public ministry, while the lawsuit was still active. A press release from Bishop Hoeppner said that the claims had been investigated by a diocesan review board and deemed “not credible.” Sullivan denied the allegation and no criminal charges were pursued by law enforcement.
When releasing the 2018 deposition documents, Jeff Anderson, who brought the case against the diocese, pointed out that the diocesan review board had not been provided with Fr. Sullivan’s 2009 treatment records in which mental health professionals said that “without boundary education, both Father Sullivan and those with whom he interacts may be at risk.”
In a statement made when Fr. Sullivan was returned to public ministry in 2017, Anderson said: “The decision by the diocese and Bishop Hoeppner to return Fr. Sullivan to ministry while the lawsuit is pending is reckless, because Fr. Sullivan poses a threat of harm to children, and deceptive, because there is information that has not been made known to the public that is in Bishop Hoeppner’s possession that demonstrates that this diocese and Hoeppner are doing the wrong thing again.”
LifeSite has contacted Bishop Hoeppner to ask whether he thinks it would have been good for him to have informed police authorities about the assessment of mental health professionals that Fr. Sullivan posed a risk to himself and others. LifeSite also asked whether he regretted the decision to return him to public ministry after a professional report had noted repeated instances of his failing to recognize physical boundaries. No response has been provided.
Priest who abused teen boy
Ron Vasek, a former candidate for the diaconate in the diocese, has accused Bishop Hoeppner of pressuring him to retract an allegation that a Crookston priest molested him in 1971 or 1972, when he was either 16 or 17 years old. Vasek claims that then Father [now Monsignor] Grundhaus jumped into his bed and fondled his genitals while the two were sharing a hotel room, after Vasek had driven Grundhaus to a canon law convention in Columbus, Ohio.
“When I was abused by Fr. Grundhaus in Columbus, Ohio, I did not know about homosexuality or the culture that exists within it,” Vasek said at a press conference in 2019. “As a farm boy, I had not been exposed to anything like that.”
“Not understanding what had happened to me, affected me for the rest of my life,” he continued. “My understanding of fatherhood was shattered. A father-figure in my life violated my innocence.”
In an interview recorded last year with Michael Voris of Church Militant TV, Vasek claims that years later Grundhaus apologised to him for the incident but said that he would deny it if Vasek ever accused him publicly.
Vasek says that he told Bishop Hoeppner about the abuse in 2011 after he began his application to become a deacon in the diocese.
Vasek says that he first spoke about the abuse to a Fr. Lefor when he began to consider applying to become a deacon. He says that the priest reported the conversation to Monsignor Goering, vicar general of the Fargo diocese, who then contacted Vasek by telephone.
Among the 2018 deposition documents released in November are handwritten notes of Hoeppner showing that Goering called Hoeppner and informed him that Vasek had told him he had been abused by Grundhaus while he was a minor. The notes also show that Hoeppner called Vasek, arranged a meeting shortly after hearing of the allegation and that at that meeting Vasek gave Hoeppner a detailed account of the abuse he had received. The notes detail Vasek’s claim that Grundhaus had told him he would deny the allegations if they ever became public.
During the 2018 depositions, Hoeppner said that he couldn’t recall whether or not he knew prior to meeting with Vasek in September 2011 about the alleged abuse by Grundhaus. When he was shown his handwritten notes by Anderson, he then acknowledged that he had known about the allegations prior to the meeting with Vasek.
Hoeppner maintained during the deposition that the reason he suggested to Vasek to recant in writing his allegation of being a victim of sexual abuse was because the Fargo diocese had inquired about his allegation against Grundhaus and intended to stop the priest from exercising ministry in Fargo.
According to Vasek, Hoeppner said to him during the meeting in 2015 when he signed the letter: “We want to have Grundhaus be able to do ministry, so we need to have you sign a letter recanting your allegation.”
On August 13, 2015, the Diocese of Crookston had been ordered by a Mahnomen County District Court Judge to produce all records pertaining to allegations of sexual abuse of minors by before 1985. Vasek told Church Militant TV that he didn’t know at the time, but that he now knows that the day he signed that letter was the same day that the court order was due for the diocese to supply the names of all priests with any abuse allegations against them. Monsignor Grundhaus was not included in the list sent to the courts.
During the depositions, Anderson asked Hoeppner whether he had that order in mind when he invited Vasek to his home. Hoeppner said: “I did not have that in mind.”
CNA claimed that a priest of the diocese told them that he believes Hoeppner asked Vasek to retract his claim in order to avoid naming Grundhaus on that list.
Two priests of the diocese, Fr. Robert Schreiner and Msgr. David Baumgartner, both told CNA that they believed that Hoeppner had forced Vasek to sign the 2015 letter.
The coercion charges were settled in September 2017. As part of the settlement, the diocese gave Vasek an undisclosed financial compensation. Vasek also received a copy of the letter he signed in 2015, although he believes it is not the same letter. Vasek believes the original letter mentioned Grundhaus specifically by name, whereas the letter he received states: “regarding a trip I was on when I was 16 years old…I have no desire to nor do I make any accusation of sexual impropriety by the priest.”
Hoeppner said in a statement when the settlement was announced that the agreement “avoids costly attorney fees and a drawn-out legal process”, but that “it does not constitute any admission of unlawful conduct or wrongdoing by Bishop Hoeppner.”
In July 2019, Vasek was one of the 15 victims of alleged sexual abuse by clergy to reach a settlement with the Crookston diocese due to his allegations against Grundhaus.
LifeSite contacted Bishop Hoeppner to ask him if he regrets not having initiated an investigation into the allegation made by Vasek against Grundhaus and if he regrets not having listed Grundhaus in the list of clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors by the 2015 court order. No response was provided.
Vasek told LifeSite that, despite everything he has experienced, he remains a faithful Catholic and encourages others not to let clerical scandals dampen their faith. He said:
I have been asked a hundred times why I’m still Catholic, by Catholics who have fallen away from the Church because of the sex abuse scandals and the cover ups and by non Catholics. My answer to them is simply that I have faith in Christ, not in men. Within minutes of the Last Supper one of Christ’s bishops betrayed Him. So He knew that in the life of the Church that bishops would betray Him.
But where would I go? There is nowhere else to go.
So I remain a faithful Catholic. You don’t know how many people I tell not to leave the Church. But to pray, to stay in it, to continue to press these men for truth and not to let up.