CROOKSTON, Minn. — The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has been cleared by Catholic Church leadership to continue its probe into the Crookston bishop’s alleged cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse.
The Congregation for Bishops in Rome authorized Archbishop Bernard Hebda to proceed with further investigation into Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who has been under investigation since September, according to a Tuesday, Feb. 4, statement from the Catholic Diocese of Crookston.
In addition to the continued investigation into the Crookston bishop, the authority to handle priest sex abuse cases has been transferred to Hebda, the Crookston Diocese said.
Judge Timothy O’Malley, director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the archdiocese, will serve as Hebda’s delegate in the investigation, the diocese said.
The investigation by Twin Cities church authorities came after an allegation surfaced in 2017 that Hoeppner silenced a victim of abuse.
The bishop was named in a lawsuit brought by Ron Vasek that claimed he was sexually abused by Crookston Diocese priest Monsignor Roger Grundhaus about 40 years ago. According to the complaint, Hoeppner coerced Vasek to sign a letter denying his own allegations.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Jeff Anderson & Associates, a St. Paul law firm that has represented several clients allegedly abused by priests in the Crookston Diocese, called the archdiocese’s move the “correct step” and praised Vasek for his commitment to fighting the diocese.
In July 2019, 15 alleged victims of abuse at the hands of six priests between 1969 and 2009, including Vasek, reached a $5 million settlement with the Crookston Diocese, but it was just the beginning of troubles for the Crookston bishop.
Hoeppner, whose diocese covers the northwest corner of Minnesota including East Grand Forks and Moorhead, is the first to be investigated under new rules Pope Francis put into place in 2019 known as “Vos estis lux mundi,” which translates to "You are the light of the world." The protocol is designed to standardize probes into clergy sex abuse.
The development comes as Hoeppner faces increasing criticism and pressure to resign from both reported victims of clerical sexual abuse and supporters of a priest he recently placed on administrative leave.
Sexual abuse survivors in November held a news conference with their lawyers asking for Hoeppner to resign after newly-released video depositions showed the bishop admitting he did not properly handle a 2011 claim that a priest in his diocese sexually abused a minor. These depositions and other documents were released in connection to the July 2019 settlement and have been turned over to Hebda for his investigation.
In January, the Crookston Diocese announced it had placed a Bemidji priest on administrative leave following allegations of misconduct that included “boundary violations.” Father Bryan Kujawa was not accused of criminal or sexual misconduct, but his fitness to be a priest was repeatedly called into question, the diocese said.
Kujawa said in a statement to parishioners that he attracted scrutiny from the diocese after texting with a minor about spiritual guidance meetings and was placed on suspension after an anonymous woman told the diocese that he had rubbed another woman on her thigh during confession. Kujawa denied that allegation.
The move to place Kujawa on leave was announced as Hoeppner and a group of bishops from Minnesota and the Dakotas met with the pope, according to Catholic News Agency.
Hoeppner has faced criticism from many in the region’s Catholic community for placing Kujawa on leave. Some took to placing billboards in support of the priest in the Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks areas.