Crookston, Minn., Feb 4, 2020 / 12:45 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Crookston announced Tuesday that the Vatican has ordered additional investigation into the conduct of Bishop Michael Hoeppner, the first U.S. bishop to be investigated through a process developed by Pope Francis last year.
Hoeppner will not be permitted to oversee sexual abuse cases in his diocese during the follow-up investigation.
“Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has recently been authorized by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, to conduct further investigation related to claims that Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner had engaged in ‘acts or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil or canonical investigations of clerical sexual misconduct’ as prescribed by the motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi,” the Crookston diocese announced Feb. 4.
Hoeppner, 70, has been accused of mishandling the cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct: the bishop is reported to have pressured an alleged victim to drop his allegation of abuse against a priest, failed to follow mandatory reporting laws, and neglected to follow protocols designed to monitor priests accused of misconduct.
In depositions released Nov. 5 as part of a legal settlement, Hoeppner is seen to admit to several of the charges against him. In those depositions, Hoeppner also defended a diocesan decision to allow a priest to remain in ministry, without notifying parents or parishioners, after the priest admitted that while he was teenager he had sexually abused a younger child.
The first stage of the Vatican investigation was also undertaken by Hebda, under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi, 2019 norms from Pope Francis on investigating bishops accused of mishandling or obstructing allegations of clerical sexual abuse.
It is not clear how many of the allegations against Hoeppner fell within the mandate of Hebda's initial investigation, and how many will only be formally examined by the Vatican after the follow-up investigation.
Hebda sent his initial findings and recommendations to the Vatican in late October, leaving the matter in the hands of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
Vos estis lux mundi allows the Vatican “to provide for a supplementary investigation” after initial steps are taken, if Vatican officials deem it necessary.
Judge Timothy O’Malley, Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, will serve as Hebda’s delegate for the second investigation, presumably overseeing day-to-day responsibilities.
The move announced Tuesday comes as a surprise to observers, though because Hoeppner is the first bishop to face a Vos estis investigation, there is no precedent from which to set expectations.
Tuesday’s announcement comes after several months in which local Catholics have called for Hoeppner’s ouster, and accused him of mistreating a popular priest removed from ministry under vague terms.
Priests in the diocese told CNA in recent weeks that they expected Hoeppner to be removed from office, and that given the bishop’s record, the credibility of the Vos estis procedures could be called into question if he is eventually permitted to remain in office.
At the same time, several U.S. bishops told CNA that they are watching the investigation against Hoeppner carefully, to see whether he is afforded the opportunity to defend himself during the investigation.
The Crookston diocese also announced Tuesday a Vatican decision “that for the duration of the investigation, the faculty to deal with cases of sexual abuse against clerics of the Diocese of Crookston has been transferred from Bishop Hoeppner to Archbishop Hebda.”
Sources in the diocese tell CNA that Hebda has already begun overseeing at least one case of a priest in the Crookston diocese accused of unspecified misconduct.
Hoeppner, alongside other bishops from Minnesota and neighboring states, met with Pope Francis Jan. 13 for nearly two hours, during the bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome, which is required by canon law to take place every five years.
A timeline for the next phase of the investigation has not been released.
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