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Ex Austin priest allegedly covered up sexual abuse

By Kyle Farris

Winona Daily News

Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who has served 42 years as a priest in the Diocese of Winona and is a former Austin school administrator, has been accused of covering up a decades-old case of child sexual abuse and of blackmailing the accuser into keeping the claims to himself.

Hoeppner has “categorically” denied the claim” according to the diocese.

Hoeppner was named in a civil complaint filed May 8 in Polk County district court.

Hoeppner served as principal of Pacelli High School and Queen of Angels Parish in the 1980s. He also was administrator of Queen of Peace Parish in Lyle and chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospice in Austin.

Ronald Vasek, a longtime parishioner in the Crookston diocese and the father of one of the priests there, said he was abused by a diocesan priest in 1971, when he was 16, and that Hoeppner allegedly learned of the abuse around 2010.

Vasek said Hoeppner discouraged him from sharing the allegations with anyone, and then used his family’s aspirations within the church — Vasek himself hoped to become a deacon — to force Vasek into silence.

“I felt like I had been abused all over again,” Vasek said at a news conference in St. Paul on Tuesday.

“To this day, I never have doubted one thing the Catholic Church teaches … But I saw nothing but immorality within our diocese — how things had been covered up for years and years. There could be other victims like me who have been silenced by the bishop or by anybody.”

According to the complaint and Vasek’s comments on Tuesday, May 9, Vasek was sexually abused by diocesan priest Roger Grundhaus during a trip to Ohio in 1971, and told no one of the abuse for four decades.

Around 2010, when he was making plans to become a deacon, Vasek contacted a priest outside the diocese and asked if he should report the abuse to Hoeppner. The priest advised Vasek to come forward.

When Vasek and Hoeppner sat down to discuss the allegations, the complaint states, the bishop told Vasek he should keep quiet about them. That kind of story, the bishop allegedly told him, would be harmful to Grundhaus and the diocese.

For the next five years, Vasek kept the claims to himself.

In 2015, Hoeppner asked again to meet with Vasek. He presented Vasek with a document that, if signed by Vasek, would erase the allegations he’d made against Grundhaus. If Vasek cared about becoming a deacon and preserving his son’s priesthood, Hoeppner allegedly told him, he should sign the letter.

Vasek signed the letter, he said, and was later surprised to learn that his application to become a deacon had been rejected. That, he said, is when he decided to share the allegations with others.

On May 9, the diocese released a statement that read, in part: “Bishop Hoeppner categorically denies that he in any way forced, coerced or encouraged Mr. Vasek to not pursue his allegations regarding Msgr. Grundhaus.

“The Diocese of Crookston plans to conduct a thorough investigation into this matter. It would not be appropriate to comment further until that investigation has been completed.”

The statement also notes that Grundhaus, who retired in 2010, has been suspended from active ministry.

Robert Schreiner, another priest in the diocese, has come down on the side of the accuser.

At a May 9 news conference, Schreiner described Vasek as brave and honest, and said he was shocked to hear of the allegations against Grundhaus and Hoeppner.

“I could never have imagined the name that he would reveal as his abuser,” he said. “And never in a million years could I have imagined … who he was still being abused by.”

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who is representing Vasek in the case, said this is the first time in U.S. history that a bishop has been directly sued for coercion.

Patrick Wall, an advocate for Anderson’s law firm who was a priest in Winona in the 1990s, said he didn’t expect Hoeppner to ever be in the middle of something like this.

According to Wall, Hoeppner — who left for Crookston in 2007 — helped the Winona diocese crack down on its own problems with child sexual abuse. Through that and the rest of his work, he built a strong reputation for himself.

“He had a good, longstanding reputation as someone who would defend the church,” Wall said. “But, in this case, you can see what that means.”
—The Austin Daily Herald contributed to this report.