CROOKSTON, Minn. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A practicing Catholic is accusing his diocese of trying to cover up priestly sex abuse.
Ron Vasek was on the way to becoming a permanent deacon in 2011 when he started opening up about his victimization as a child. The abuse incident occurred in 1971, but Vasek had mostly been quiet about it — as sex abuse victims often are — until his time in seminary training for the permanent diaconate.
In October 2015, Bp. Michael J. Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota met with Vasek privately and allegedly coerced him into pledging never to file a lawsuit about the abuse.
But in May this year, Vasek filed a civil suit against the diocese, accusing it of a cover-up. The seven charges in the ongoing civil suit fall under three claims: coercion, negligence and nuisance.
The two coercion charges were settled in late September. In the settlement, the diocese gave Vasek an undisclosed financial compensation. He also received a copy of the letter the bishop had him sign back in 2015.
Vasek is represented in court by Jeff Anderson and Associates. The law firm specializes in representing victims of clerical sex abuse.
Church Militant spoke with Vasek over the phone on Friday. He told us the remaining five charges will likely be settled around December 20. He also expressed doubt about the authenticity of the document handed over by the diocese.
"I don't believe it's the same letter I signed," he told Church Militant. "There's a lot of information missing."
The document from 2015 is much shorter than he remembers. It is brief and ambiguous, he points out, with a statement just over 50 words long. It reads:
I, Ron Vasek, regarding a trip I was on when I was 16 years old, and on which a priest of the Diocese of Crookston was also participating, clearly and freely state that I have no desire to nor do I make any accusation of sexual impropriety by the priest toward me.
Vasek also disputed Bp. Hoeppner's account of the meeting: "He states that he wrote it in my presence. That is not true."
He claims that at the meeting, the bishop made thinly-veiled threats, even mentioning Vasek's son, a priest in the diocese.
The bishop's comments, as related by Vasek, were opaque and imprecise; this has led some to speculate that Vasek largely misinterpreted the conversation.
Church Militant reached out to the diocese for comment, and a spokesperson pointed to public statements penned by the bishop.
In a September 27 public letter about the recent settlement in the Vasek case, Bp. Hoeppner wrote, "Mr. Vasek had indicated to me that he wanted the alleged incident to remain confidential. I attempted to abide by his wishes."
Bishop Hoeppner also noted:
Looking back and knowing what I do now, I believe I would have handled my conversations with Mr. Vasek differently. However, please know that I did not pressure Mr. Vasek into making any decision with which he was not comfortable.
This statement was actually the second public memo by Bp. Hoeppner about the settlement. The first one was released on September 20, and was a brief summary of what had happened thus far in the legal battle.
In an October 4 article for diocesan publication Voice from the Valley, Bp. Hoeppner wrote in even more detail about the lawsuit and the settlement of the coercion charges:
I, your bishop, deny that I forced, coerced or encouraged Mr. Vasek to not pursue making allegations against Msgr. Grundhaus. I want you to know that I signed the settlement agreement so we could avoid a long, drawn out legal process and to avoid costly attorney fees. No diocesan funds were used in this settlement agreement; our diocesan insurance provider has covered the claims involved.
Bishop Hoeppner's article included the text of the letter from 2015. It is identical to the version publicized by Vasek and his attorneys.
The document from 2015 with Vasek's signature was obtained by the Crookston Police Department in August using a search warrant. Speaking with Church Militant, Vasek blasted the diocese for not turning over the letter until the police had a warrant, arguing they were trying to hide it.
"It took 10 days," he lamented, from when he filed a complaint with Crookston Police Deparment until investigators obtained the letter. "What that letter did is ... it forced the bishop to admit there was a meeting that day," Vasek remarked.
In a May 9 memo, the diocese addressed Vasek's lawsuit. The bishop denied coercing him, but remained mute as to whether the alleged October 2015 meeting actually occured.
A subsequent Pastoral Statement from Bp. Hoeppner, dated May 14, asked the entire diocese to pray and fast for a fair resolution to the Vasek lawsuit and all other sex abuse lawsuits in the diocese. He asked the faithful to be "non-judgmental" toward either side of the case; he asked that justice for sex abuse victims be included in the intentions at Mass, and that the faithful fast and abstain from meat every Friday "as a sign that we know our most important sustenance comes from our loving God."
Although there was an undisclosed financial compensation involved in the September settlement, Vasek says he "could care less" about money. "What I care about is the truth," he emphasized.
He repeatedly said during the Church Militant interview Friday, "I want to get the truth out there."
Truth is something of a battle-cry for Vasek. His website about the lawsuit cites the Scripture passage, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the TRUTH, and the TRUTH will make you free" (John 8:31–32, RSV).
Vasek believes his case is a sign of much broader problems in the diocese of Crookston. "Our diocese hides things," he commented. He believes, "It's just too bad we have to rely on the civil courts to get to the truth."
He believes his lawsuit has been a source of hope for other victims of sex abuse. He explained, "I've had many, many people approach me, to tell me about abuse in their life."
He recalled that the people who confide in him are victimized in youth by various authority figures, from "priests" to "teachers" to "scout leaders."
"I ask people to pray for all victims of sexual abuse," he said. "I just ask the Church as a whole to pray for the issues in this diocese, and for a just resolution to them."
In May 2016, the diocese of Crookston declared in a statement that "fourteen claims came forward alleging sexual abuse of a minor by a priest."
According to the statement, signed by Bp. Hoeppner, these new claims were provoked by the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act. The law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, giving a three-year window for all child abuse victims to seek criminal prosecution against their former abusers, regardless of how much time had passed.
The document was sent out at the closure of that three-year time-frame. (The bishops of Minnesota released a joint letter on the occasion as well.) The diocesan letter sublty questioned the fairness of charging the diocese and parish with neglect. It claims such charges are based on the idea that "the diocese and the parish 'should have known' that the priest would abuse."
The meeting between Vasek and Hoeppner was in October 2015, about seven months before the close of that three-year window.
Vasek said the legal ordeal has made life difficult, but has not tarnished his faith life: "I still have complete faith in the Catholic Church, as the Church established by Christ."
He still attends daily Mass, and noted that bad clergy are nothing new to the Church. He keenly noted, "Judas was a bishop."
In his youth, Vasek's family was very close with a priest, Msgr. Roger Grundhaus. In 1971, the priest invited Vasek to come with him to a canon law meeting in Columbus, Ohio. (A previous Church Militant report mistakenly stated it was in Cincinnati.)
Vasek was 16 years old at the time. During the trip, Msgr. Grundhaus was usually gone for meetings during the day, leaving teenaged Vasek at the hotel by himself.
One night in the hotel room, Vasek says, Grundhaus started touching him sexually. He expressed his shock at what was happening, and Grundhaus pulled back. The incident lasted a few moments, but Vasek says it caused him years of confusion and trauma.
Afterwards, as Vasek reflected on the shocking experience, he started honing in on other odd things about Grundhaus' behavior on the trip. For instance, Msgr. Grundhaus bought alcohol for the underaged Vasek every night at dinner. Furthermore, the hotel room only had one bed.
Decades later, Grundhaus gave his apologies to Vasek on a handful of occasions. Monsignor Grundhaus has since retired, and in 2010 he was suspended from public ministry.