Francis Hoefgen was a priest more than 20 years ago at St. Boniface Church in Hastings.
Now the 64-year-old is on trial in Dakota County, accused of sexually abusing an altar boy at the parish in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Hoefgen, who has left the priesthood and lives in Columbia Heights, faces two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. While dozens of priests have been accused of sexual misconduct, Hoefgen is one of the few to face criminal charges for alleged offenses that date back decades.
In opening statements, attorneys outlined a case that hinges on the passage of time and the recollection of the former altar boy, who is now 36. St. Boniface merged with the Guardian Angels parish in 1987 to become St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“The church is gone, but his memories of abuse are still here. That testimony is what this case is about,” said Assistant Dakota County Attorney G. Paul Beaumaster.
Wednesday’s opening statements previewed how contentious that testimony will be. Beaumaster said Hoefgen violated the trust of a boy who looked up to him, while Hoefgen’s attorney urged jurors to be wary of one man’s recollections.
The man is expected to testify when the trial resumes on Thursday. The Star Tribune is not naming him because he is the victim of an alleged sexual assault.
According to Beaumaster, the man had moved to Hastings before first grade with his father, stepmother and stepsiblings. By fourth grade, when he became an altar boy for “Father Fran,” as Hoefgen was called, the priest was someone in whom the boy could confide.
“He liked spending time with Father Fran,” Beaumaster said. “Father Fran helped with a lot of issues he dealt with as a fourth-grade boy from a broken home.”
Until, Beaumaster said, Hoefgen violated that trust.
According to Beaumaster, the abuse started with fondling and progressed to oral and anal sex. It continued on and off until Hoefgen left the parish in 1992, before the boy started seventh grade, Beaumaster said.
Hoefgen’s attorney, Michael Colich, urged jurors to keep an open mind and reminded them that the prosecution’s case is based on one man’s statement. “You will be the judges of that,” he said.
Colich questioned the gap between when the abuse allegedly occurred and the man’s first contact with police in November 2013. Colich said he would introduce evidence that the victim contacted Jeff Anderson — the St. Paul attorney whose firm has filed numerous lawsuits against Catholic clergy members suspected of abuse — before going to police.
Beaumaster said Hastings police officers, officials from St. John’s Abbey and an expert on delayed reporting who works with people who have been abused will also testify.
Hoefgen, free on $25,000 bail, occasionally talked to a few supporters seated behind him during court recesses.
Hoefgen also has been sued under the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for the filing of lawsuits over decades-old child sex abuse claims.
According to that lawsuit, filed in Dakota County in November 2013, Hoefgen admitted to 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 in Silver Spring, Md., for psychological treatment, but criminal charges were never filed.
Hoefgen was assigned to St. Boniface in Hastings in 1985. The lawsuit said that the institute, St. John’s Abbey and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had concealed Hoefgen’s past abuse and had failed to warn parents in Hastings.
The civil case is on hold until the conclusion of Hoefgen’s criminal case.
Also on Wednesday, the Twin Cities archdiocese said that it placed the Rev. Gerald Dvorak on a leave of absence and that it notified law enforcement authorities after it received an allegation of past sexual abuse.
Archbishop John Nienstedt said in a statement that there is a “credible allegation” that Dvorak sexually abused a minor in the 1970s. A credible allegation is one that’s “not manifestly false or frivolous.”
Dvorak released a statement saying that he has never abused anyone and asking for prayers for everyone involved. He has been pastor of St. Peter in Richfield since 2011. He has worked in many posts since 1978, including as pastor at St. Joseph in Hopkins and St. Michael in St. Paul.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.