The Catholic bishop of Minnesota’s Crookston Diocese is being investigated for allegations of interfering with a clergy abuse case — the first sitting U.S. bishop to be scrutinized under new Vatican protocols for reviewing and disciplining bishops.
The investigation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner will be overseen by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis using rules approved earlier this year by Pope Francis. Previously there were no protocols for internal investigations of bishops, only for priests.
Hebda is the first U.S. bishop to launch an investigation into a fellow bishop under the new Catholic law. Victims’ advocates say it will be a test case to determine whether the new law actually holds bishops accountable for their own misconduct or for failure to address abuse by their priests.
Hoeppner has previously been accused of pressuring an abuse survivor to recant his statement that he was abused by a former vicar general in Crookston.
“I have been authorized by the Congregation for Bishops to commence an investigation into allegations that the Most Reverend Michael Hoeppner … carried out acts or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil or canonical investigations of clerical sexual misconduct,” Hebda said in a statement.
“Law enforcement has been notified of the allegations,” he said.
The Crookston Diocese, in northwestern Minnesota, said it is refraining from comment pending the outcome of the investigation.
Coerced to recant?
Hoeppner has been accused of coercing a former deacon candidate, Ron Vasek, to recant his allegation that he was sexually abused as a teen by the Rev. Roger Grundhaus in 1971. Vasek withdrew the allegation in 2015, signing a letter saying it didn’t happen.
In 2017, however, an emotional Vasek announced at a St. Paul news conference that he was suing the diocese, claiming that Hoeppner threatened to undermine his religious work and his son’s if he didn’t retract the clergy abuse claim. A settlement was later reached.
Hebda’s role as an investigator of possible bishop misconduct is something completely new. It comes following a canon law change that gives the metropolitan archbishop in a state or region the authority to investigate misconduct by fellow bishops.
A similar investigation is expected to be opened by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. He announced this week he’s been in touch with the Vatican about an investigation into Bishop Richard Malone of the Buffalo Diocese for his handling of clergy abuse cases.
“Both Hebda and Dolan have added responsibilities, because they will be the first,” said Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has documented decades of clergy misconduct.
“It’s critical they get off on the right foot,” McKiernan said. “That means doing a fair investigation and being transparent with their results.”
McKiernan said he was concerned about the limited information revealed as Hebda’s investigation was made public. The archdiocese posted a statement by Hebda on its website but didn’t reveal what it was investigating, why, or who initiated the investigation. It did, however, encourage the public to come forward with information.
“Surely they’d get people coming forward in a more focused way if they were more clear in what they are seeking,” said McKiernan. “I assume that this is about Vasek’s claims and whether others had this experience.”
‘This is a big deal’
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson represented Vasek and 14 other abuse survivors in the Crookston Diocese who reached a $5 million settlement with the diocese in July. He said his office is in the process of cleaning up the internal documents it gathered during the Crookston investigation, and the documents will be available to Hebda and the Vatican.
“This is a big deal,” Anderson said. “Bishop Hoeppner and his alarming practices have been on our radar for a long time. This gives us a chance to reveal to the Vatican and to the community some of the dangerous and reckless practices, past and present. They need to take a hard look at what he’s done. It isn’t about just one priest.”
Anderson was reached while working Wednesday in the Buffalo Diocese, the second diocese likely to be investigated under the new Catholic law. He applauded the Vatican’s move to step up bishop accountability.
“It’s progress,” he said. “And it’s time.”
Hebda said he will work with the archdiocese’s Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment on the Hoeppner case.
“I have appointed qualified lay persons to assist me in carrying out this investigation, to provide an independent review of its contents, and assist in its examination and analysis,” Hebda said.
Hebda said there is a time limit for the investigation but did not provide details. When complete, it will be forwarded to the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s representative in Washington, and to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which will determine any subsequent action.