Pope asks US bishop to resign after cover-up investigation

ROME (AP) — A bishop in Minnesota resigned Tuesday at the request of Pope Francis after he was investigated by the Vatican for allegedly interfering with past investigations into clergy sexual abuse, officials said.

The Vatican said Francis accepted the resignation of Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner and named a temporary replacement to run the diocese. Hoeppner is 71, four years shy of the normal retirement age for bishops.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Crookston said the pontiff asked Hoeppner to resign following the Vatican probe, which it said arose from reports that the bishop “had at times failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy.”

The Vatican and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops simultaneously announced Hoeppner’s resignation and the appointment of the Most Rev. Richard E. Pate, the retired bishop of Des Moines, as a temporary administrator without commenting on the reason for the change.

The diocese of Crookston counts nearly 35,000 Catholics in northern Minnesota.

The Vatican had tasked St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda with conducting a preliminary investigation. Last year, Hebda’s office announced that the Holy See had authorized a more in-depth probe.

Hoeppner is accused of stating that a priest was fit for ministry despite allegedly knowing the priest had abused a 16-year-old boy in the early 1970s. The victim, Ron Vasek, later sued the diocese, alleging that Hoeppner blackmailed him into retracting his allegations against Monsignor Roger Grundhaus. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2017.

Hoeppner was the first bishop known to be investigated by the Vatican under a 2019 law that Francis approved laying out the procedures to conduct preliminary investigations against bishops accused of sex abuse or cover-up.

He has said in sworn testimony that he was trying to protect the victim’s confidentiality by stating that Grundhaus was fit for ministry. He has said Grundhaus continues to deny Vasek’s allegations.

Hebda’s office said the investigation took 2,000 hours, involved interviews with 38 people and that Hoeppner was interviewed more than once. The resulting reports totaled 1,533 pages, including recommendations, and were reviewed by two lay experts who determined the probe was thorough and had been “conducted in a fair and impartial manner,” the archdiocese said.

A survivor advocacy group, SNAP, said it was pleased with the outcome, but said Francis could have simply fired Hoeppner rather than asked him to resign.

“While the result is the same, we feel that a stronger message would have been sent by ousting Bishop Hoeppner instead of asking him to leave, as there is a difference in forcing someone out versus asking them to remove themselves,” SNAP said.

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