When Msgr. Roger Grundhaus wanted to baptize his niece’s baby in the cathedral of a nearby diocese, there was the simple matter of getting a letter from his bishop affirming that he was a priest in good standing.
Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston in northwest Minnesota obliged the retired priest, a former vicar general of his diocese. “He is a person of good moral character and reputation,” he wrote in 2012. “I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.”
But contrary to that blanket statement, Hoeppner had already heard allegations directly from a diaconate candidate, Ron Vasek, that Grundhaus had molested him in the early 1970s. And so, attorney Jeff Anderson confronted the bishop with the letter during a deposition: “That’s a lie, isn’t it?”
“Counsel, can you rephrase in a non-argumentative way?” the diocesan lawyer interjected, and there was no admission from the bishop in settling the lawsuit.
This letter was part of a trail of evidence leading to the announcement that Pope Francis had asked for and received Hoeppner’s resignation as bishop, a first in the United States under the 2019 Vatican regulations designed to prevent cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse. The disclosure that the pope had “asked for” the bishop’s resignation, appearing in a statement from the Diocese of Crookston, marked a significant advance in the long effort to hold prelates accountable for concealing clergy sexual abuse.
But at the same time, there is a void of information on exactly where the Church’s investigators and Pope Francis found the bishop went astray. In lieu of any kind of fact-finding report, we are left with Hoeppner’s vague statement to the people of his diocese: “I apologize to you, as I have apologized to our Holy Father, for my failures in governing as bishop.” In the meantime, he wrote, he would enjoy living in a “warmer climate” near his sister, adding, “I look forward to returning to Crookston for personal visits and will await the appointment of a new bishop here to determine other activity.”
In a telephone interview, Vasek said he was pleased with the thoroughness of the investigation, conducted for the Vatican through Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “I would really like to see what they found in the investigation, but I don’t think we’ll ever see that,” he said, adding that the outcome “tells me there was sufficient evidence there to boot a bishop.” He continued: “I was really pleased to see that Pope Francis asked for the resignation. They could have just said, ‘he resigned.’ They could have said his health was bad.... That tells everything to me.”
As is so often the case for those who wrestle with whether to file abuse charges, Vasek grew up in a devout Catholic family deeply involved in their parish. His mother became friendly with Grundhaus, and the priest visited the Vasek home for Sunday dinners and birthday parties. Vasek volunteered frequently at the parish, and, Grundhaus said in his testimony, he counseled the family after one of Vasek’s brothers died in a tractor accident.
According to a lawsuit Vasek filed in 2017, Grundhaus sexually abused him in 1971. (Grundhaus declined to comment.) As a newly licensed driver at the age of sixteen, he drove the priest to a meeting of canon lawyers in Columbus, Ohio; Grundhaus allegedly made his move on the boy when they roomed together overnight. In a deposition, Grundhaus denied touching him inappropriately, but confirmed that he did room with Vasek on the trip, although in 1972 when he was seventeen. Grundhaus added in his deposition an incident that he said occurred on a similar trip in 1973 when he held Vasek from behind in “kind of a bear hug” as he lay in bed in the morning; the priest said he was horsing around, without a sexual intent.
According to the lawsuit, Vasek disclosed what happened to another priest when he was considering entry into the diaconate program. That led to a meeting between Vasek and the bishop around 2011.