Minnesota bishop denies coercing abuse victim to remain silent

Ron Vasek, center, addresses a news conference along with his wife Patty, right, and attorney Jeff Anderson, left, on May 9, 2017 in St. Paul, Minn. Anderson announced a lawsuit against Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minn., accusing the bishop and diocese of concealing a report of abuse and threatening retaliation against Vasek if he went public. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston "categorically denies that he in any way forced, coerced or encouraged" a candidate for the permanent diaconate not to report his claim of sexual abuse against a priest of the diocese, the Diocese of Crookston stated on May 9.

The diocese issued the statement in response to a lawsuit filed that day against the bishop and the diocese.

At a news conference held at attorney Jeff Anderson's St. Paul office, the plaintiff, Ron Vasek, said he told Bishop Hoeppner about the abuse, which he said he suffered as a teenager, while he was considering becoming a permanent deacon for the diocese in 2009 or 2010. He said the bishop told him that he couldn't tell anyone, including his wife, because it would damage the reputation of the accused priest, Msgr. Roger Grundhaus, who had held leadership positions in the diocese.

According to the Diocese of Crookston, the abuse allegation was reported to law enforcement in 2011. According to Anderson, Msgr. Grundhaus' name was not included on a list of priests accused of abuse that the diocese released in 2014.

Vasek, 62, entered the diaconate program in 2011. He said that in 2015, Bishop Hoeppner asked him to sign a letter stating that the abuse didn't happen, as the abuse accusation was prohibiting the bishop from clearing Msgr. Grundhaus for ministry in another diocese. Vasek also said that the bishop told him that not signing the letter would make it difficult for the bishop to ordain Vasek a deacon and it could affect assignments for his son, who was recently ordained as a priest. Vasek said he felt that the statement was a threat, but he signed the letter to protect his son.

Vasek also said that Bishop Hoeppner recently tried to prevent his ordination to the diaconate, which was scheduled for June, by asking his pastor to withdraw support for his ordination. At that time, he shared the story of his abuse for the first time with his wife, Patty, and the director of the diocese's diaconate program, Father Robert Schreiner.

According to the complaint, around 1971 Msgr. Grundhaus sexually abused Vasek, who was then 16, while Vasek was accompanying the priest to a meeting of canon lawyers in Columbus, Ohio. Msgr. Grundhaus retired from full-time ministry in 2010 but has continued to assist at parishes. According to the diocese's statement, he is currently suspended from active ministry.

In addition to accusing Bishop Hoeppner of coercion, the suit files a count against the bishop for "intentional infliction of emotional distress." Filed against the diocese are counts of neglect, negligent supervision, negligent retention and two counts of nuisance.

Vasek is seeking at least $50,000 in damages, as well as an order requiring the diocese to publicly release the names of "all agents" accused of abuse, and an order for the diocese to "discontinue its current practice and policy of dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by its agents secretly, and that it work with civil authorities to create, implement and follow a policy for dealing with such molesters that will better protect children and the general public from further harm."

Father Schreiner stood alongside Ron and Patty Vasek and spoke in support of Ron.

"I believe him," he said. "My experience of Ron over these many years is that he simply isn't capable of manufacturing this."

Vasek said his Catholic faith hasn't been shaken by the situation. "My faith in the Catholic Church has never wavered one bit and never will," he said.

"I don't want this at all, ever, to be talked about as to be against the Catholic Church," he added. "This is to purify the men in the church (because of) their sinful actions and their unlawful actions that has nothing to do with the Catholic faith, but has to do with men within the corporation part of the Catholic faith. ... The truth will set you free, and that's why I'm here today."

A native of Winona, Bishop Hoeppner has served since 2007 as bishop of Crookston in northwestern Minnesota.

"Bishop Hoeppner and other diocesan leaders are deeply saddened and troubled about the allegations made today by Ron Vasek," the Diocese of Crookston said in its statement. "The Diocese of Crookston takes all allegations of sexual abuse very seriously."

It stated that it "plans to conduct a thorough investigation into this matter" and that Bishop Hoeppner "asks that all those involved be kept in prayer during this difficult time."

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