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Ron Vasek said all he wanted was to become a church deacon and support his son, a Catholic priest. But in a lawsuit filed this week, Vasek claims that Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner threatened to undermine his religious work and his son’s if he didn’t retract a clergy abuse claim.

It’s among the allegations in an unusual lawsuit that, for the first time, accuses a U.S. bishop of coercion in a clergy abuse case, said Vasek’s attorney Jeff Anderson.

Equally unusual was the presence of a current Catholic priest, the head of the Crookston diocese deacon formation program, standing next to Vasek at a Tuesday news conference announcing the legal action.

“I felt like I was being re-abused all over again,” said an emotional Vasek, recalling the day in 2015 that he said the bishop asked him to sign a letter rescinding his abuse claim against Monsignor Roger Grundhaus.

“I signed that letter to protect my son,” Vasek said.

The Crookston diocese said it is “deeply saddened” by the allegations, and plans to “conduct a thorough investigation into this matter.” It said it had reported the alleged abuse to law enforcement in 2011.

“Bishop Hoeppner categorically denies that he in any way forced, coerced or encouraged Mr. Vasek not to pursue his allegations regarding Mons. Grundhaus,” the diocese said in a statement.

Well-known priest

Grundhaus is a well-known priest and former vicar general at the Crookston diocese. He retired in 2010, the diocese said, but still works as a substitute priest, Anderson said.

Grundhaus said he would not comment on the matter, based on legal advice.

The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, also claims that the bishop failed to make the sex abuse allegation against Grundhaus public as required by a 2015 court order.

“The coercion and concealment in real-time demonstrates the abuse crisis continues, ” said Anderson.

More than 500 claims of sex abuse by Minnesota clergy have been made in the past four years, most through a law that allowed older civil cases to be filed over three years ending in 2016. Catholic leaders have said that the abuse scandal is in the past, and that reforms have been made.

Since 2014, Crookston has released the names of six priests credibly accused of sexually molesting minors. Grundhaus is not on that list.

The lawsuit claims that Vasek met with Hoeppner in 2010 as he was considering enrolling in the diocese’s deacon formation program.

Vasek said he told the bishop that Grundhaus had sexual contact with him in about 1971. He was 16 at the time, and accompanied Grundhaus to Ohio for a meeting of canon lawyers.

In the meeting, Vasek said he asked how the allegation would affect his future in the deacon program. The bishop told him it wouldn’t be a problem, he said, as long as he didn’t tell anyone else.

The report apparently was put in the diocese’s then-confidential abuse files.

In August 2015, a district judge ordered those files be made public in a different abuse case. Two months later, Vasek claims the bishop summoned him to his private residence.

The bishop asked Vasek to sign a diocese-written letter retracting the abuse allegation, according to the complaint, because “Msgr. Grundhaus was unable to minister in the other diocese because they had a plaintiff’s report of abuse in their files.”

Vasek said he was threatened with retaliation if he didn’t sign it.

According to the complaint: “The bishop indicated to the plaintiff that if he should refuse to sign the letter, the bishop would have difficulty ordaining plaintiff as a deacon … and that plaintiff’s son’s priesthood in the Diocese of Crookston would be negatively impacted.”

Vasek said he was anguished about signing the letter, but did so for the sake of his son. He continued in the deacon program, whose candidates are ultimately approved by the bishop. His application was denied. By this point, Vasek said he concluded he could not pledge a vow of obedience to the bishop anyway, as required in the deacon oath.

He is now focusing on helping others who have been sexually abused by priests.

“If you can hear my voice, please come forward,” he said, speaking to TV cameras. “I will be an advocate for you.”

Priest at his side

The Rev. Bob Schreiner, the Crookston priest who oversees the deacon program, stood by Vasek’s side at a sometimes tearful news conference. He said he has known Vasek and his wife, Patty, for 28 years, and had come to know Vasek even better in the deacon program.

“I believe him,” said Schreiner, who broke down as he read a short prayer.

When asked if he was concerned about repercussions for publicly supporting Vasek, Schreiner said he was resolved to “accompany him on his journey. … The rest will fall as it may.”

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511