CROOKSTON, Minn. — Minnesota Bishop Michael Hoeppner has resigned at the request of Pope Francis following an extensive investigation into reports that the Diocese covered up reports of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
The investigation, which began in 2019, was the first time a U.S. bishop had been formally investigated under new rules implemented by the pope as the church aimed to standardize the protocol for investigating clergy sexual abuse.
The Most Rev. Richard E. Pates, bishop emeritus of Des Moines, has been tapped to serve as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Crookston until a new bishop is designated. Pates on Tuesday, April 13, said he learned he would likely be stepping into the role about a month ago, but was unsure of the timeline of the investigation.
The Diocese of Crookston includes dozens of churches in Minnesota, including Moorhead, Warroad, Mahnomen and Bemidji.
Hoeppner was first accused of allowing sexual abuse to continue in a 2017 lawsuit filed in Polk County by Ron Vasek, who says he was sexually abused by Monsignor Roger Grundhaus while on a trip in 1971 when Vasek was 16.
Later, in 2011, when Vasek tried to become a deacon and revealed his abuse, Hoeppner told him to stay quiet, which Vasek believed to be an act of blackmail, according to the lawsuit.
In July 2019, the Diocese of Crookston settled with Vasek and other victims for $5 million. Two months later, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced it would lead the investigation into the alleged coverup following Pope Francis' call for worldwide action.
Vasek said that when he learned of Hoeppner's resignation early Tuesday morning, the news was bittersweet.
"It's too bad that it had to happen, and it's too bad anytime that a bishop resigns because of wrongdoing. But, you know, they are human, and they're sinful men as all of us are," Vasek told Forum News Service. "But it's a good thing when the truth is revealed, because the truth always overcomes darkness. And that's what's been going on for many, many, many, many years."
Vasek is hopeful that now that justice has been done in his case, it will empower other survivors to come forward.
"I think there's still a lot of healing that needs to happen," he said.
In addition to Vasek's claim, Hoeppner's decision to allow a priest to continue to practice after admitting to sexually abusing a child also was probed.
According to documents released as part of the settlement, the Rev. Joseph Richards told a former bishop in 1993 that he had once sexually abused another child when Richards was a teen and had fantasies, while a priest, involving minors. Following the admission, he took a nine month leave of absence before returning to his ministry duties. He has been a priest at St. Joseph's Church in Fertile, Minn., since 2012.
Hoeppner has publicly defended his decision to allow Richards to continue practicing, though the Diocese placed Richards on a list of clergy members accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
Separate issue sparked billboard pushback
In early 2020, Hoeppner came under fire after the Crookston Diocese announced it had placed a Bemidji priest on administrative leave following allegations of misconduct that included “boundary violations.”
Father Bryan Kujawa, who formerly served as a priest in Moorhead, was not accused of criminal or sexual misconduct, but his fitness to be a priest was repeatedly called into question, the diocese said.
At the time he was placed on leave, 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.
Some in the diocese took to placing billboards in support of the priest in some locations in the Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks areas.
The billboards read: "Demand Justice for Father Bryan Kujawa."
Tom Morrissey, one of several northern Minnesota Catholics who helped pay for the billboards, said at the time that he wanted fellow members of his faith to ask church leaders in Crookston why they decided to discipline the priest.
"I want people to call the diocese and tell them we expect you to explain this. He's convicted and accused of no crime," said Morrissey, who noted at the time that he was not one of Kujawa’s parishioners, but he had met the priest several times.