A distinguished clergy member accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy at the Diocese of Crookston about 40 years ago has broken his silence to deny the allegations.

"I am at last free to defend myself, my reputation and the church I have devoted to serving," Monsignor Roger Grundhaus wrote in a statement to the Herald.

The diocese settled 15 lawsuits, including the one naming Grundhaus, in July. An investigation on Bishop Michael Hoeppner was launched last week by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to look into claims that Hoeppner covered up abuse.

In his written statement and a subsequent telephone interview, Grundhaus denied the claims against him. He takes issue with the timeline given by the victim, Ron Vasek, and said he was close with Vasek and his family for many years after the alleged abuse.

Vasek said it comes as no surprise that Grundhaus denies the allegations and said the priest’s version “is a flat-out lie.”

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The timeline

Vasek said he was sexually abused by Grundhaus in the early 1970s during an overnight stay at a hotel room during a Canon Law trip to Columbus, Ohio. Vasek said he believed the trip was in 1971 or 1972 and he was 16 years old. He was alone with Grundhaus during the trip.

Grundhaus said the convention was on April 24-26, 1972, but the night in question did not happen during the trip to Ohio. Rather, he said it was a year later, in 1973, when they went to a convention in Peoria, Ill. He said Vasek was 18, “not legally or emotionally a minor.”

“I have kept all my appointment calendars for the past 51 years, so I know fairly precisely where I was and with whom I was spending time on any given day in that span of time,” Grundhaus wrote in the statement.

Vasek said the priest is placing emphasis on the exact year because if Vasek was 18 at the time of the abuse, his allegations would not fall under the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The statute opened a three-year period for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits that would otherwise have been barred by the statue of limitations.

Vasek said he knows he was in high school and had recently gotten his driver's license, although he admits he could be off by a year. But he asserts the abuse did happen when he was still a minor.

"As somebody in high school who didn't even take notes in class, I didn't bother to take notes and mark down the exact date," he said.

What happened?

On the way to the Illinois convention, Grundhaus said a blizzard stranded them in an emergency shelter in Wisconsin for nearly a day. He and Vasek skipped the conference to drive home. Grundhaus said they stayed overnight at a Minneapolis hotel, but did not share a bed.

He said during an interview that he did not fondle Vasek, but in the morning “I did roll him out of bed and he rolled out of bed with a certain tickling him and stuff like that.”

In the written statement, Grundhaus said he jostled Vasek out of his bed and “if he considered this a sexual exchange then he has remembered and re-imagined it much differently than I have.”

During depositions related to the settlement, Vasek said Grundhaus admitted to “knuckling me in the ribs and tickling my stomach. And we fell between the bed with sheets tangled between us.”

“OK, so even if we take his word at what he says it is – how irresponsible and how outside of any protocol whatsoever would that be as a priest with the responsibility of taking care of somebody to act like that? He's just trying to state that he didn't touch my genitals.”

Decades later, Grundhaus said he apologized to Vasek for behavior he later realized could have been interpreted as grooming.

“I used to favorite Ron. I thought he was maybe interested in the priesthood because he was always very readily at the church when I wanted something to be done or with some youth activity going on or something,” Grundhaus said. “And so I would ask him to do things, maybe more than others, because he was always ready to get engaged with some activity. And I said that I sometimes feel like I took advantage of him – but I didn't mean that I took advantage of him in a sexual way.”

Vasek also remembers the conversation, but said Grundhaus at that time apologized for sexually abusing him.

“He said, ‘I've gone to confession’ and that if any harm had come to me, if I’d made poor business decisions, or I was affected in any way from it, that he had money and that he would pay for counseling or try to make things right,” Vasek recalled.

Grundhaus said the incident in the hotel room came up during the conversation and it “kind of surprised me that he was taking that in an entirely different manner than I had intended it.”

He said he did not leave the conversation with an understanding that Vasek believed he had been sexually abused.

Vasek said Grundhaus told him he would deny allegations if they were ever made public.

Close family friend

Grundhaus presided over Vasek’s wedding and remained a close friend of his family for decades after the abuse. He said he was invited to numerous events and was “deeply involved” with the family when Vasek’s brother and parents died.

“Would a rational adult with any integrity invite someone they believed to be a ‘predator priest’ back to so many intimate family occasions?” Grundhaus wrote.

Vasek said the priest was ingrained in his family because “he had groomed himself into our family.”

“As long as my parents were alive I felt compelled to not say anything, because I knew they would blame themselves,” he said. “And they had already, my dad especially, had suffered so much after my brother was killed and then Grundhaus became a real close confidant to my parents. And I was kind of always backed into a corner. I couldn't do anything and I just kind of tried to forget.”

'Green light'

Grundhaus was disbarred from service after Vasek spoke out publicly about the abuse in 2017. He said he was advised by legal counsel not to comment on the claims until the situation was resolved.

Bishop Hoeppner published a column in a diocesan publication several days after the church shelled out more than $5 million in payments to the 15 victims who brought civil lawsuits against the clergy. Hoeppner refuted that Father Patrick Sullivan, Grundhaus and Father Joseph Richards would not be included on a list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse because diocesan review boards deemed the allegations against the men to be “not credible.”

Hoeppner himself is under investigation by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis on allegations that he allowed abuse to continue by covering it up. The diocese declined to comment on the pending investigation.

Grundhaus said he expects to receive the “green light” from Hoeppner to return to the ministry soon because the lawsuits are now resolved and claims against him were deemed not credible.

"I have been neither charged nor convicted of a crime in civil procedures nor in the law of the Church," Grundhaus wrote in his statement. "But I have been repeatedly NAMED. ... There is no credible evidence against me nor are there collaborators who would join Ron in his accusation – even as widely broadcast as they were. My name and reputation have been dragged through the quagmire of Ron Vasek's vindictive assaults on the Bishop, shored up by a diocesan priest, a former friend and colleague, who Ron successfully and unfortunately manipulated."

Vasek said “it’s par for the course for the Crookston Diocese to put somebody back in the service that has had allegations.”

Sullivan was reinstated to the church after the review board deemed allegations against him not to be credible, but he was placed on leave again in February after a report of “boundary issues” with a minor surfaced. The church asserts the situation is not sexual or criminal.

Grundhaus said the church including the lawsuit that names him in allegations of sexual abuse does not mean he is guilty. The decision, he said, was made to save the church money.

Vasek disagrees. He said it doesn't make sense that the church would settle if the priests are innocent.

Vasek said the diocese has continuously mishandled sexual abuse allegations and irreparably damaged “the credibility of the entire system for reporting and dealing with abuse in the Crookston diocese.”

“I just think that if these guys ever, ever plan on having any aspect of eternity with our Creator, now is the time to come clean on this,” he said. “Because if they don’t, they’ll have to atone for that later – that’s their sin not mine.”