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Minnesota bishop denies coercing abuse victim from reporting allegation

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Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. — 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 May 9.

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

Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Minn.,  (CNS file/Paul Haring) (

Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Minn., (CNS file/Paul Haring) 

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.”

 

Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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Catholic Relief Services investigates if sex ed publication violated church teaching

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WASHINGTON — Catholic Relief Services is investigating an allegation that a publication it used in connection with a program in Rwanda violates church teaching on human sexuality.

A statement from the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and develop agency said that former and current staff are being questioned about the publication to determine how or if it was used in the small African nation in 2009 and 2010.

The query opened after Michael Hitchborn of the Lepanto Institute charged that the publication, “My Changing Body: Puberty and Fertility Awareness for Young People,” promotes abortifacient contraception, masturbation and condom use.

CRS said it would issue a final report when its investigation concludes, but offered no specific date for the release.

Hitchborn cited a report from Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Health that said CRS, Caritas Rwanda and Family Health International were partners in revising and piloting a sex education program for children 10- to 14-years-old using “My Changing Body.” Funding for the program came through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Lepanto Institute describes itself as “a research and education organization dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church against assaults from without as well as from within.”

CRS said the partnership developed under its Avoiding Risk, Affirming Life project, a five-year effort that promoted sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage to combat the spread of AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus.

“We are currently investigating whether the version of ‘My Changing Body’ that the Lepanto Institute references, or any other version, was every used in Rwanda,” the statement said.

The CRS statement explained that it has reduced its presence in Rwanda since 2010 and that it is attempting to reach many of staff members who worked with the project who are no longer with the agency.

“CRS takes all concerns raised about our programs seriously and reviews them carefully, correcting any problems if needed. CRS is steadfast in our commitment to uphold Catholic teaching throughout our programs. In the last five year CRS has taken extensive steps to strengthen our systems to ensure that all of our staff are trained in Catholic identity, that our policies for reviewing and vetting programs and related relationships effectively uphold church teaching and that all materials used in CRS programs are in compliance with church teaching,” the statement said.

 

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Minnesota archbishop denies allegation, steps aside during investigation

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St. PAUL, Minn. — Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is voluntarily stepping aside from all public ministry, effective immediately, while St. Paul police investigate an allegation that he inappropriately touched a male minor on the buttocks in 2009 during a group photography session following a confirmation ceremony.

In a Dec. 17 letter to Catholics of the archdiocese, Archbishop Nienstedt called the allegation “absolutely and entirely false.”

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis (CNS file)

“I have never once engaged in any inappropriate contact with a minor and I have tried to the very best of my ability to serve this archdiocese and the church faithfully, with honor and due regard for the rights of all, even those with whom I disagree,” he said.

“True, I am a sinner, but my sins do not include any kind of abuse of minors,” he said. “I have met victims and I know the lasting damage that such abuse causes.”

Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piche, in his role as a vicar general, will cover all of the archbishop’s public duties while the matter is being investigated, according to a Dec. 17 statement from the archdiocese. Father Charles Lachowitzer continues in his position as a vicar general and moderator of the curia.

The allegation of the single incident was brought to the police by a mandated reporter within the church. Upon learning of the allegation a week ago, the archdiocese instructed the mandated reporter to make the matter known to the police.

“The archdiocese is mindful of the due process concerns of those involved,” the statement said. “There must be justice and due consideration of the rights and dignity of every human person, both the individual involved and the archbishop. This is not only the bedrock of our beliefs as Catholics, but also of the justice system of our country.

“The steps taken in response to the allegation against the archbishop demonstrate and reaffirm the archdiocese’s commitment to disclosure.”

It added that “these steps further confirm that all within the archdiocese will be subject to the internal policies we have established. This is the position of the archdiocese and the archbishop himself. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the individual involved and the archbishop as justice is pursued and all may move forward on a path toward healing.”

In his letter, Archbishop Nienstedt said the identity of the person who made the allegation has not been made known to him.

The archbishop pointed out that he normally stands for confirmation photos “with one hand on my crozier (staff) and the other either on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed or on my pallium (the short stole), which hangs from my chest. I do that deliberately and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that fact.”

Archbishop Nienstedt’s column in the current issue of The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper, will be his last until the investigation is complete.

“I hope that the investigations can be thorough but quick,” he wrote in his letter. “I already long to be back in public ministry — to be able to serve as the Lord has called me to serve.”

“These days will give me the time to pray for you and the individual involved,” he added. “I ask that you pray for me too.”

In its Dec. 17 statement the archdiocese again urged those who have been a victim of sexual abuse by someone in church ministry or know someone else who has to call the police or other civil authorities.

Two days earlier at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, at the invitation of the pastor, Archbishop Nienstedt apologized for the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations in a homily delivered at two Dec. 15 Masses at the parish church.

“I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel. You deserve better,” he said.

On Dec. 5 The Catholic Spirit published the names of 30 priests for whom credible allegations of abuse had been reported after the archdiocese gained court permission to release the names.

In November, the archdiocese announced that it had hired the Los Angeles-based firm of Kinsale Management Consulting to review clergy files as part of an archdiocesan plan to take a comprehensive approach to addressing the issue of clergy sexual misconduct.

In other actions, Archbishop Nienstedt appointed Dominican Father Reginald Whitt as archdiocesan vicar for ministerial standards. He has full responsibility for all issues related to clergy sexual misconduct. Also in place is a newly formed Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force.

 

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