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‘They killed a man but created a saint,’ prelate says of slain priest

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Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Retired Archbishop Harry J. Flynn was rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., when he got a call in 1979 from an old friend from the seminary, asking if he could visit for a week.

Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese who was brutally murdered in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor, is pictured in an undated photo. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City announced the North American priest will be beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma. (CNS photo/Archdiocese of Oklahoma City archives)

That friend was Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and a missionary in a rural part of Guatemala.

He picked up Father Rother from Dulles International Airport near Washington and was appalled by the horrific situation the priest described in Guatemala. Members of his congregation had disappeared and were presumed dead, victims of a civil war between the government and guerrilla groups.

“If they asked for a few more cents for picking coffee beans, they were considered communists, and a truck would come into the village that night, stop at the home of the man or woman who asked for a few more cents, take them out to the country, torture them, kill them, and then throw their bodies into a well to poison that well,” said Archbishop Flynn, who headed the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 1995 to 2008.

Father Rother described the situation “with a passion,” Archbishop Flynn recalled. “It was haunting him. He said, ‘If I speak, they’ll kill me, but if keep silent, what kind of a shepherd would I be?’”

The friends shared meals together that week, but Father Rother spent his days praying at the seminary’s historic Lourdes grotto, a place he had loved while he and Archbishop Flynn were seminarians at “the Mount.” At the end of the week, he told then-Father Flynn, “I know what I must do. I must go back and speak.”

“But,” Archbishop Flynn recalled, “he also said this: ‘They’re not going to take me out and kill me somewhere in the country and then throw my body into a well.’ He said, ‘I’ll put up a fight like they’ve never seen before.’”

Archbishop Flynn took Father Rother to the airport and said goodbye. He knew it would be the last time he would see him alive. Two years later, in 1981, Archbishop Flynn opened a newspaper to read that an American priest had been killed in Guatemala. He didn’t have to read further to know it was Father Rother.

Archbishop Flynn was to be among others who knew the priest gathering in Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center Sept. 23 for Father Rother’s beatification. In December 2016, Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother as a martyr, making him the first U.S.-born martyr recognized by the Catholic Church. Also attending will be members of the Rother family, including distant cousins from Minnesota.

Father Rother grew up on a farm near Okarche, Ok. He was a farm boy with a knack for fixing things. After high school, he left home for seminary in Texas, but he was asked to leave after struggling with Latin. Undeterred, he transferred to the Emmitsburg seminary, where he met Archbishop Flynn, who was three classes ahead of him. Archbishop Flynn noted his friend’s deep prayer life.

“We could be downstairs in recreation, laughing and carrying on, and then the bell would ring to go up to chapel for night prayer and Stanley seemed to me to go right into prayer, which I found enviable,” Archbishop Flynn recalled in a recent interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Minnesota archdiocese.

The two were in the seminary around the time that Pope John XXIII encouraged U.S. bishops to form partnerships between their dioceses and those in Latin America. The then-Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa paired with the Diocese of Solola, Guatemala. In 1968, Father Rother was asked to minister there in Santiago Atitlan, a mission established by Franciscans. The Mayan people there had been without a priest for nearly a century.

People who knew Father Rother weren’t surprised that he returned again and again to Guatemala after the violence began, even with many opportunities to stay in the U.S. The Christmas before he died, he famously wrote to his archbishop, “A shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”

On July 28, 1981, three men burst into the parish rectory, demanding Father Rother. He was hiding, but when the men threatened the life of one of his protectors, he emerged. He was ultimately gunned down in his rectory, his knuckles raw from the fight, his spattered blood staining the wall. The Guatemalans left the stains, and to this day, visitors, many of them pilgrims, can see the aftermath of what the gunmen did to their priest. The fatal bullet remains lodged in the wall.

In 1999, Archbishop Flynn traveled to Father Rother’s church in Santiago Atitlan, visited the room where he was shot to death and celebrated Mass in the parish church. Father Rother’s body returned to Oklahoma, but the missionary’s heart was left behind with the Guatemalans, who have since enshrined it as a relic.

Archbishop Flynn also prays for his friend’s intercession, keeping his photograph on his altar for Mass. He feels that he had a graced opportunity to be with Father Rother that summer while he was discerning his impending death.

“I’ll always remember sitting in the room where he was martyred, and sitting there and looking at his blood all over the wall, splattered, and experiencing anger in my heart with the people who did that to him — this gentle, gentle shepherd,” he said, “and then realizing what he would have said — something that Christ said, ‘They don’t even know what they’re doing,’ and they probably didn’t. … They killed a man, but they created a saint.”

     

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

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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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Bishop, other leaders call for peace, unity after knife attacks in St. Cloud

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — One day after a knife-wielding man injured nine people at a shopping mall near St. Cloud, Bishop Donald J. Kettler called for prayers for those impacted by the violence.

“Please join me in praying for the victims of last night’s mall attack, for our first responders & for peace and unity in our community,” the St. Cloud bishop said via his Twitter account Sept. 18.

Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., center, talks with Maryan Ahmed and Fatumo Ukash following a Sept. 18 news conference organized by the local Somali-American community in St. Cloud after a knife-wielding man injured nine people the previous day at a shopping mall. Bishop Donald J. Kettler of St. Cloud called for prayers for those impacted by the violence. (CNS photo/Dianne Towalski, The Visitor)

Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., center, talks with Maryan Ahmed and Fatumo Ukash following a Sept. 18 news conference organized by the local Somali-American community in St. Cloud after a knife-wielding man injured nine people the previous day at a shopping mall. Bishop Donald J. Kettler of St. Cloud called for prayers for those impacted by the violence. (CNS photo/Dianne Towalski, The Visitor)

A man was fatally shot by an off-duty officer after stabbing nine people at the Crossroads Center mall in Waite Park Sept. 17. He was later identified as Dahir Adan, 22, who had worked as a security guard for one of the stores in the mall, according to news reports. Adan was a member of the local Somali community.

St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson said the attacker reportedly made references to Allah during the attack, and the FBI was investigating the incident as a possible terrorist act.

During a Sept. 18 news conference in St. Cloud, several local Somali-American leaders denounced the attack, offered condolences to the victims and their families, and called for ongoing efforts on behalf of peace and unity in the community.

“We condemn what happened in the strongest words we can possibly use,” said Abdul Kulane, a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville and leader in the Somali community. “We strongly condemn any terroristic action in America or around the world. … We don’t believe in violence.”

Benedictine Sister Michaela Hedican, prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, who attended the news conference, said she felt “profound sadness” when she learned about the Sept. 17 attack at the mall.

“The sisters have been praying and will continue to pray at St. Benedict’s Monastery. We have great hope that somehow we can walk over this bridge together,” said Sister Michaela, a member of the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders Group, which was formed in 2015 to promote interfaith dialogue and build relationships. Bishop Kettler also is a member.

Local Catholics can help by also turning to prayer “for the wisdom to know what best to say and do and how to offer support,” Sister Michaela said. “And then to reach out, not only to the Somali community, but to support each other and (support) the beliefs we have, including the Gospel mandate of loving our neighbor, no matter who our neighbor is.

“We also need to recognize that none of us want to be judged as to who we are by the action of one person,” she said.

Several speakers at the news conference stressed that Islam does not condone violence and that terrorist groups such as the Islamic State are not representative of Muslims or Somalis.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said many local Somalis and Muslims are concerned about potential backlash in the wake of the attack. The incident is a tragedy for everyone, including Muslims, he said, but it also is an opportunity for people to come together and build a stronger community.

“How we come out of this will define who we are as a community,” added Haji Yusuf, community director for UniteCloud, a grass-roots community-building organization.

Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, also is a member of the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders Group, whose members include Christians and Muslims. It meets monthly and recently held its second annual summer picnic at Lake George, where members of different faiths shared conversations and a potluck meal.

When Langer heard about the mall attack, “my heart broke,” she said.

“I knew there would be a lot of people who were going to be hurt by this, so it was very sad,” said Langer, who attended the news conference. “We’re at a place in St. Cloud where we need to make a choice: Are we going to be a divided and resentful community? Or are we going to come together, trusting in the goodness of each other? I hope we do the latter, and I believe we can.”

How can Catholics help to build a peaceful and unified community?

“I think we have to take responsibility for the fact that many of us don’t understand or don’t know many people in the Somali community,” Langer told The Visitor, newspaper of the St. Cloud diocese. “We don’t understand their faith well. We don’t understand what they’ve been through. It’s time for us as a community to educate ourselves about who these people are.”

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Duluth diocese files for bankruptcy protection

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DULUTH, Minn. — The Diocese of Duluth said Dec. 7 it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because efforts to reach a settlement “that would assist all abuse victims and protect the church’s mission” have been unsuccessful.

In November, a Ramsey County jury in St. Paul awarded $8.1 million to a 52-year-old man, known only as “Doe 30,” who said that in the 1970s, when he was 13, he was abused by the late Father James Vincent Fitzpatrick. An Oblate of Mary Immaculate, the priest was serving a parish assignment in the Duluth Diocese at the time.

Bishop Paul D. Sirba of Duluth, Minn., where the vicar general has announced the diocese has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (CNS filePaul Haring)

Bishop Paul D. Sirba of Duluth, Minn., where the vicar general has announced the diocese has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (CNS filePaul Haring)

The jury found the diocese negligent in its supervision of the priest and ordered the diocese to pay $4.9 million, or 60 percent, of the amount it awarded to the abuse victim.

“There is sadness in having to proceed in this fashion,” Father James Bissonette, vicar general, said in a statement about the diocese’s decision to file bankruptcy.

“After the recent trial, the diocese again attempted to reach a mutually agreeable resolution. Up to this point, the diocese has not been able to reach such a settlement, and given the magnitude of the verdict, the diocese was left with no choice but to file for reorganization,” he said.

According to the diocese, its operating budget for the last fiscal year was about $3.3 million. Even with insurance coverage and some diocesan savings available, it said, it has insufficient funds to cover the judgment and also provide resources for others who have brought abuse claims.

The bankruptcy filing “safeguards the limited assets of the diocese and will ensure that the resources of the diocese can be shared justly with all victims, while allowing the day-to-day operation of the work of the church to continue,” Father Bissonette said.

He added: “This decision is in keeping with our approach since the enactment of the Child Victims Act,” he added, “which has been to put abuse victims first, to pursue the truth with transparency and to do the right thing in the right way.”

Minnesota’s Child Victims Act, passed in 2013, lifted the statute of limitations for child abuse cases, opening a three-year window for people to sue the Catholic Church over incidents dating back decades. The deadline for filing a lawsuit on older cases is May 2016.

“Doe 30” filed suit in early 2014 in Ramsey County District Court against Father Fitzpatrick’s religious order, the Diocese of New Ulm, where Father Fitzpatrick also had worked in parish ministry, and the Diocese of Duluth.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had settled with the victim and a court dismissed the suit against Diocese of New Ulm.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, criticized the diocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy.

“Bishops declare bankruptcy for selfish reasons, not financial ones. They want to keep their reputations, not their assets,” the group said in a statement. “Bankruptcy brings an abrupt halt to disclosures about which clerics committed and concealed child sex crimes. That’s a self-serving strategy for a prelate. It’s a hurtful strategy for parents, police, prosecutors, parishioners, the public and of course victims. It’s morally wrong.”

During the trial in St. Paul, attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented hundreds of abuse victims in settlement proceedings across the country, argued the Diocese of Duluth should have known the priest presented a danger to children. The abuse occurred one summer when the mother of “Doe 30” allowed her son to spend the summer with Father Fitzgerald to help out as an altar boy in a rural parish.

The diocese’s attorney, Susan Gaertner, told jurors no one disputed the boy had been abused. “It’s awful, absolutely awful,” she said in her opening arguments, but the issue was that the diocese “did not have one piece of information” the priest posed a risk to children.

Headed by Bishop Paul D. Sirba, the 10-county diocese in the northwest part of the state covers more than 22,000 square miles and has a Catholic population of about 53,000 out of a total population of just over 447,000.

On its website, the diocese states that it has had safe environment policies in place since 1992.

“These policies involve mandatory reporting, cooperation with law enforcement, background checks and other safety precautions for diocesan personnel and safety training for children,” it said, “and these policies are continually updated and improved.”

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