MINNEAPOLIS — Bishop Michael Hoeppner is the first sitting U.S. bishop to be investigated under new misconduct protocols introduced by Pope Francis earlier this year.
Bishop Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, will be investigated by Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda, on charges that Bishop Hoeppner thwarted a police or canonical investigation of clerical sexual misconduct in his diocese.
“I have been authorized by the Congregation for Bishops to commence an investigation into allegations that the Most Rev. Michael Hoeppner, the bishop of Crookston, carried out acts or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil or canonical investigations of clerical sexual misconduct in the Diocese of Crookston,” Archbishop Hebda told CNA Sept. 10.
“Law enforcement has been notified of the allegations. The allegations were reported to me under the procedures set out in Pope Francis’ recent legislation addressing bishop accountability, the motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi.”
Archbishop Hebda did not state directly what charges he will investigate. However, Bishop Hoeppner has been accused of pressuring Ron Vasek, a former diaconal candidate in the diocese, to recant the allegation that he was molested in 1971 by a Crookston priest.
In 2015, Vasek signed a letter withdrawing the allegation. He told CNA last year that Bishop Hoeppner coerced him into signing that letter.
Bishop Hoeppner has denied the charge.
In July, the Crookston Diocese announced that a $5-million settlement had been reached in 15 sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against it. As a condition of the settlement, the diocese is required to release the transcripts of depositions from Bishop Hoeppner and other diocesan officials.
Archbishop Hebda told CNA he has “appointed qualified laypersons to assist me in carrying out this investigation, to provide an independent review of its contents, and assist in its examination and analysis. All involved in this investigation have been encouraged to respond to the investigators’ requests and provide accurate information so that the truth in this matter may become clear.”
Bishop Hoeppner will not yet step away from his post and is unlikely to do so at least until Archbishop Hebda has sent the initial results of his investigation to Vatican officials.
“This investigation is a preliminary one and not a full canonical process. As such, a limited time period has been established by the Holy See to gather information that may substantiate (or not) the truthfulness of the allegations. The gathered information will be forwarded promptly to the apostolic nuncio, who is the Pope’s representative in the United States, and to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome for a determination whether a subsequent process is warranted,” the archbishop explained.
“Those who filed the reports have no obligation to keep silent, and the accused is presumed innocent,” Archbishop Hebda added.
Other U.S. bishops face charges of misconduct in office, including Buffalo’s Bishop Richard Malone, or of sexual abuse, including retired Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart. However, the investigation into Bishop Hoeppner is, to date, the first U.S. investigation of a diocesan bishop under the procedure Pope Francis introduced in response to the 2018 Theodore McCarrick scandal.
The Diocese of Crookston referred questions to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.