In one of the first criminal trials in Minnesota on decades-old allegations of sexual abuse by a priest, a Dakota County jury on Tuesday acquitted Francis Hoefgen of criminal sexual conduct.
Hoefgen, 64, is no longer a priest and lives in Columbia Heights. He had been accused of repeatedly abusing a boy who was a student at the parochial school at St. Boniface Church in Hastings between 1989 and 1992.
Jurors deliberated almost four hours before returning the not-guilty verdict on both counts of criminal sexual conduct. Both the accuser and the accused broke down sobbing.
“It’s the verdict we expected based on the evidence in the case,” said Michael Colich, Hoefgen’s attorney.
Throughout the trial, Colich questioned the reliability of the accuser’s memory and the lack of physical evidence presented.
“Simply say to yourself, where’s the evidence?” Colich said in closing arguments Tuesday.
After the verdict, County Attorney James Backstrom released a statement thanking Hoefgen’s accuser for coming forward.
“Proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred 24-26 years ago without significant corroborating physical evidence of the crime itself is always a difficult task,” Backstrom said. “Without such corroborating evidence the jury must render its decision based primarily upon one person’s word against that of another.”
Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing Hoefgen’s accuser in a civil case, said he was not surprised by the verdict. The jury was never informed about other accusations of child abuse against Hoefgen, he said, nor of his treatment at St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a facility that often treats clergy sex offenders.
As the criminal trial began, Dakota County Judge Thomas Pugh granted a motion prohibiting testimony of any prior allegations of misconduct.
“There is a mountain of evidence that the jury did not get to hear,” Anderson said. “At least two other victims were prepared to testify, but the court did not permit it. Hoefgen has been accused of abusing others in the past, he had acknowledged that abuse.”
Hoefgen’s accuser, now 36, testified last week that the abuse progressed from fondling to oral and anal penetration when the man was an altar boy in fourth, fifth and sixth grades at St. Boniface’s parochial school. He said “Father Fran,” as Hoefgen was called, usually abused him after the two cleaned up after a funeral or midweek mass.
The Star Tribune has not named the man because he says he was the victim of sexual assault.
“He trusted Father Fran. He came to be able to talk to Father Fran and tell him what was going on. [Hoefgen] took advantage of that,” Assistant Dakota County Attorney G. Paul Beaumaster said in closing arguments.
When the not-guilty verdict was read, Hoefgen sobbed, removed his glasses and hugged supporters who had sat behind him during the trial. Hoefgen’s accuser put his hand to his face and began to cry. He and his family left the courtroom after the jury was dismissed.
The alleged victim also sued Hoefgen in 2013 under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for filing lawsuits over decades-old child sex abuse claims.
According to the lawsuit filed in Dakota County, Hoefgen told police that he had abused another boy at a parish in Cold Spring, Minn., in 1983. He then spent six months at St. Luke Institute for psychological treatment, but criminal charges were never filed. Hoefgen was assigned to St. Boniface in 1985.
In closing arguments, Colich suggested Hoefgen’s accuser went to police to bolster his civil case.
Beaumaster responded that a deceased priest would have been an easier target for a false claim. Beaumaster reminded jurors that Hoefgen’s accuser testified that he had no expectations of a big payday.
Colich also attacked an investigation that he called “a disgrace” and argued that investigators presumed Hoefgen’s guilt because of past stories of abuse within the Catholic Church. Hoefgen testified that he does not remember the accuser or the room where the man said the abuse occurred.
“They jumped to conclusions. Why? Because he was a former Catholic priest and we have an allegation. That’s the narrative,” Colich said.
Staff writer Jean Hopfensberger contributed to this story.