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Justice still to come for victims of Crookston Diocese abuse

Attorney in $5 million case says it's important for "survivors to just get some accountability and acknowledgement for what happened.”

Ron Vasek (second from right) recounts how Bishop Michael Hoeppner (photo on screen) allegedly coerced Vasek to cover up sexual abuse. Robb Jeffries / Forum News Service
Ron Vasek (second from right) recounts in this Forum News Service file photo how Bishop Michael Hoeppner (photo on screen) allegedly coerced Vasek to cover up sexual abuse. Robb Jeffries / Forum News Service
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The Diocese of Crookston reached a $5 million settlement this month with victims of clergy sexual abuse, but one victim said the real victory is still to come.

“I was never concerned about monetary gain in this lawsuit. My pursuit was for truth. I wanted the people to find out how many priests the public did not have information on who were credibly accused,” said Ronald Vasek, who filed a lawsuit against the diocese and Bishop Michael Hoeppner in 2017. “And that list is going to greatly increase now, through the efforts of these lawsuits.”

Attorney Elin Lindstrom, who represents victims as part of the Jeff Anderson and Associates team, said the settlement will include publicly releasing depositions and private documents from the diocese that likely will reveal more allegations.

“I think this is a really important step for these survivors to just get some accountability and acknowledgement for what happened,” she said. “These non-economic settlement parameters were something they were striving for and I think it’s a good day for us and a good day for some more transparency in the diocese.”

Most of the lawsuits were filed in response to the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year period for victims to bring forward civil suits that otherwise would be barred by the statute of limitations in regard to child sexual abuse.

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Vasek, whose lawsuit was part of the recent settlement, said he was abused as a boy by Monsignor Roger Grundhaus. Vasek said Hoeppner told him to keep the abuse secret and covered up the truth.

The lawsuits allege sexual abuse at the hands of Father James Bernauer, Father James Porter, Father Patrick Sullivan, Father Stanley Bourassa, Father James Vincent Fitzgerald and Grundhaus. All served in Crookston. The abuse reportedly spanned from 1969 until 2009.

Sullivan was placed on leave and then reinstated after allegations came to light. He has since been suspended in light of new accusations of “boundary issues,” according to the diocese. All five other accused priests are dead.

‘A lot of survivors’

Similar settlements have popped up across the country and across the world as the names of hundreds of accused priests came to light over the last several decades. Pope Francis called for worldwide action to create a mandatory reporting process that protects those who bring forward allegations.

The bishops of the United States met in November and June to address the clergy abuse.

New York, New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, Hawaii, Vermont and California currently have or are considering laws to open up the statute of limitations for childhood victims of sexual abuse. During Minnesota’s three-year timeframe, about 1,000 claims were filed, naming about 200 alleged perpetrators -- many for the first time.

Lindstrom said the laws give victims the chance to “tell their story and seek accountability for what was done to them.”

“I think there are a lot of survivors in North Dakota and in every state there are people who just haven’t come forward yet because it’s hard for a survivor to come forward as a child. Oftentimes survivors don’t come forward until adulthood,” Lindstrom said. “I do think if North Dakota were to pass a law that we would see some sort of complaints come out of that state as well.”

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In North Dakota, six lawsuits filed during 2009 and 2010 named Brother Raimond Rose, of Fargo, for alleged sexual abuse. Bishop Accountability, which compiles a database of publicly accused priests throughout the country, lists 10 priests from the Fargo Diocese.

Bishop John Folda of the Diocese of Fargo said in a July column the church is “in the final stretch” of reviewing files and plans to release the names of clergy with substantiated claims of abuse against minors.

‘Just the beginning’

There isn’t an exact timeline for the public release of documents, but Lindstrom said she expects more priests to be added to the list of accused.

Aside from those named in the settlement, the Diocese of Crookston lists Richard Boyd, Victor Cardin, Henry G. Carriere, Gerald K. Foley and Francis R. Reid as priests who have been credibly accused of abuse of a minor.

Eleven other priests -- Lawrence Davis, Charles Gormly, Louis Heitzer, Othman Hohmann, Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, Paul Kabut, Stephen Murawski, Michael O’Reilly, Aloysius Simon, Casimir Plakut and Augustine John Strub -- were not incardinated in the Diocese of Crookston but worked or lived there at some point and have been accused of abusing a minor, according to the diocese’s website.

Vasek said he won’t truly start feeling closure until the documents are released and changes begin within the diocese. In an ideal world, Vasek said he would like to see the perpetrators face criminal charges.

“The problem is the statute of limitations has expired and some of those guys are dead, the offenders are,” he said. “But the people that covered that up, some of them are still alive and those guys should go to jail.”

The Diocese of Crookston is the only Minnesota diocese to avoid bankruptcy during settlements with victims. The $5 million settlement is mainly covered through insurance, although about $1.5 million came from property sales and estate gifts.

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Hoeppner apologized last week to victims in a statement to the congregation.

"I apologize for the harm done to you by those entrusted with your spiritual care. Although you can never be fully compensated for your suffering, we are thankful this litigation has now come to a good end and are hopeful this settlement offers you justice and will be helpful for healing," he wrote.

Vasek said concerned members of the church will be discussing the clergy sexual abuse crisis during the Roman Catholic Revival event Sept. 14 from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. at Crookston’s Wildwood City Park.

“It’s just the beginning,” Vasek said. “We’re shedding some light on something that’s very dark and the light always defeats the darkness.”

Tess covers crime and courts for the Grand Forks Herald. She previously worked for the Associated Press, Lincoln Journal Star, Omaha World-Herald and The Voice News. Reach her at (701) 780-1267, twilliams@gfherald.com or on Twitter @ByTessWilliams.
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