Although the Rev. Francis Hoefgen admitted to police in 1984 that he had sexual encounters with a teen-ager in the St. Cloud area, the Stearns County Attorney’s Office did not prosecute the Catholic priest.
Hoefgen, 51, is one of 13 monks or priests living under restrictions at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville because of allegations or admissions of sexual abuse. Hoefgen is guest master at the abbey and leads spiritual retreats at Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center near Frontenac. He declined to comment for this article.
A central question as the nationwide story of the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse allegations unfolds is why more priests weren’t prosecuted. In many cases, the answer is that the abuse allegations were never reported to police or were reported after the statute of limitations had expired. But in Hoefgen’s case, authorities knew about the allegations — and had a confession in hand — less than a year after the sexual incidents took place. A county prosecutor simply decided not to file charges in the case.
The case helps to shed light on how allegations of abuse by a priest were handled in at least one case, in a small, close-knit Catholic community where the police chief had to interrogate his own priest and admitted later that he worried about the effect of negative publicity on the church.
Two criminal law professors interviewed for this story said Hoefgen would have been charged today. But in the 1980s, they agree, authorities would have been reluctant to prosecute a priest.
It’s unclear how long it took the county attorney’s office to drop the case, but Prosecutor Patrick Strom wrote a memo in 1986 — more than two years after his office received the case — listing reasons for not prosecuting Hoefgen. Strom argued that the allegations did not fit the statutes and that the priest had completed treatment. Strom was not available for comment regarding the memo and it’s unclear why there is two-year gap between the date his office received the case and when the memo was written.
The victim, now a 35-year-old Minneapolis resident who did not want to be named, said in an interview this week that he later wondered why no action was taken against Hoefgen. But at the time he reported the incidents, he didn’t understand that the priest was under investigation. When he was called into the principal’s office and quizzed by police about his relationship with the priest, the victim said he thought authorities were investigating him.
“I thought it was all me, that I was the one who was a bad person,” he said.
Hoefgen was an associate pastor at St. Boniface church in Cold Spring near St. Cloud in 1984 when police learned about the allegations of sexual abuse, according to court records. He was sent to St. Luke Institute in Maryland for treatment for several months and in 1985 took a position at St. Boniface Church in Hastings, which later merged with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Hoefgen left that post in 1992 when the victim filed a civil suit in Dakota County District Court. A judge dismissed the suit against Hoefgen and the church in 1993 because the statute of limitations had expired.
“A REALLY GREAT GUY”
The victim first recalled meeting Hoefgen when the priest visited him in a hospital in St. Cloud after he attempted suicide in 1983, court records show. The teen-ager told the priest that he worried that he was gay.
“He said that that was OK because God couldn’t hate someone for loving someone,” the victim recounted in a 1993 deposition.
Today, the victim feels the priest preyed on his uncertainty over his sexual identity.
“I thought he was a really great guy, someone who understood me and wasn’t putting any pressure on me, someone very supportive,” he said.
After leaving the hospital, the teen-ager returned home briefly. But after fighting with his parents, he moved in with Hoefgen for a few weeks, the victim told lawyers during his deposition. Several months later the teen-ager told a psychologist what had happened. Following the state’s mandatory reporting law, the psychologist reported the allegation to a social worker who contacted Cold Spring police in March 1984.
The 17-year-old told then police chief Vincent Konz and a sheriff’s deputy that Hoefgen twice fondled him and performed oral sex on him in 1983, according to the court record. When Hoefgen gave him absolution after the first incident, he said he got the impression that it was his fault. Asked by authorities why he did not resist, he said, “I just did not know what to do,” according to court records.
Hoefgen gave the police chief a similar account: He said he performed oral sex on the teen-ager and touched his genitals twice, court records show. When Konz asked the priest what had come over him, he said he was trying to reach out to the troubled teen, according to court records.
In an interview earlier this week, Konz said Hoefgen was his priest. Asked whether it was awkward to interrogate his own priest, Konz said: “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked him.”
Konz turned over the case to County Attorney Roger Van Heel and discussed it with him in March 1984, according to the court record, which Konz confirmed in an interview this week. Konz said he never heard about it from the county attorney again.
Konz wanted to get the pastor out of town, and asked church officials if there was something they could do, court records show. When abbey officials said they could send Hoefgen to St. Luke’s for treatment, Konz asked for assurances that the priest would be made available to answer any charges. Those charges never came.
When he was deposed in the civil suit, Konz said at the time of his investigation he was concerned about the impact on the community.
“There’s so many small people in a small town like this, they could crucify (Hoefgen). And maybe he had it coming, but that wasn’t the way things were handled in those days. … My concern was what it would do to the faith community. I knew that I had a job to do and I took my statements and my paperwork and turned it over to the county attorney and I’m going to bring the charges against the guy, but I would rather not blow it up. You know how the news media is.”
“COVER YOUR BUTT MEMO”
When Van Heel, who is still the county attorney, was contacted this week, he said he didn’t recall the investigation. He said documents had been destroyed because the case is more than 10 years old. When faxed a copy of the memo that explains why the case was dropped, Van Heel said his assistant Patrick Strom had written it.
Van Heel’s office did charge another priest with sexual abuse in a separate case. In 1979, Father Raoul Gauthier was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct after he fondled a retarded male adult, according to the Stearns County criminal complaint signed by the same prosecutor who declined to charge Hoefgen.
In the Hoefgen memo, which doesn’t name him but is in his court file, Strom wrote that the case did not fit the requirements for criminal sexual conduct because the 17-year-old victim wasn’t mentally defective or physically helpless — one of the circumstances under which a suspect could be charged with criminal sexual conduct. The memo did not address whether Hoefgen could have been charged under other sections of the statute.
The prosecutor added that he had received a report regarding Hoefgen that “reveals to me that appropriate treatment was voluntarily entered into and completed. Further, I am reliably informed that … concerns for his further contact with young persons has been identified and dealt with in an appropriate manner.”
By the time the memo was written, Hoefgen was back at work at a church in Hastings.
The memo is what John Sonsteng, a former prosecutor who is now a William Mitchell law professor, calls a “cover your butt memo.”
Both Sonsteng and Joseph Daly, a Hamline University law professor who has defended priests, said Hoefgen could have been charged with third- or fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Sections of both statutes pertain to perpetrators who are in a position of authority or have a significant relationship with 17-year-old victims. Defense attorneys could have challenged whether the relationship between Hoefgen and the teen-ager fit those categories, Daly and Sonsteng said.
The law professors agreed that prosecutors would charge such a case today, but that might not have been the case in the 1980s. It would have been a tough decision even six months ago, Sonsteng said, before the nationwide publicity about sexual abuse by priests and other clergy.
Abbey spokesman William Skudlarek said church officials and prosecutors did not discuss dropping the case against Hoefgen.
Hoefgen was given another parish post after receiving treatment because St. Luke’s determined that he had no serious chronic problems.
“Fran’s ministry at Hastings was very much appreciated by the people there as it was in Cold Spring,” Skudlarek said. “This was one isolated incident. He went into treatment. He received an excellent evaluation from St. Luke’s. He has done very well.”
“SILENCE MAKES IT HAPPEN AGAIN”
Since Hoefgen wasn’t charged, the victim had one option remaining: a civil suit.
The victim had been troubled before he met Hoefgen: He had attempted suicide and fought with his parents. However, because of the priest’s abuse, the plaintiff said in court records he had suffered from alcoholism, drug use and depression.
“I never had a self-worth at all after this happened,” the victim told lawyers when he was deposed in 1993. “I just figured that I was disposable, basically. No one really cared about me.”
Through counseling, he linked his struggles to the abuse and filed a civil suit.
The victim said in an interview this week that he filed the suit because “I need to have some control back, find a way to say, ‘No, it wasn’t my fault.'” While the suit proceeded, the abbey paid for his counseling, he said. Skudlarek confirmed the abbey’s arrangement.
When the suit was dismissed, the victim said he cried for two days and felt like he was being told that the abuse was his fault.
Today, the victim said his life has improved. He has held the same job as a waiter at a Minneapolis restaurant for four years. He has friends and says he is gay with confidence.
He said he tries to think of Hoefgen as something to let go of from the past, but that’s a struggle given the current publicity about priests. The victim said he agreed to an interview after a co-worker told him “silence makes it happen again.”
The victim said he still suffers from depression every summer — the time of year the abuse took place. He has completely cut himself off from the Catholic Church; if he sees a priest on the television, he has to turn the channel. And the question lingers in his mind: Could I have prevented the abuse?
“I’m definitely on the right track,” he said. “That was 20 years ago and it still affects me. It’s one of those things where every day I get up and realize this thing happened to you. How will you get over it today?”