(Reuters) - A Catholic bishop in Minnesota threatened to thwart a man’s attempt to become a deacon and derail his son’s career as a priest for reporting sexual abuse by a senior church member 46 years ago, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.
The personal injury lawsuit, filed in Polk County Court in Crookston, Minnesota, against Bishop Michael Joseph Hoeppner by Ronald Vasek, marks the first time a U.S. bishop has been individually sued for coercion, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, Jeff Anderson.
Hoeppner, who has been bishop of Crookston since 2007, refuted the charges.
“Bishop Hoeppner categorically denies that he in any way forced, coerced or encouraged Mr. Vasek not to pursue his allegations,” the Diocese of Crookston responded in a statement.
The diocese is also a defendant in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000 and the release of records of abuses carried out by priests in the diocese.
The diocese said it would investigate Vasek’s coercion claims, but that his abuse allegations were reported to law enforcement in 2011.
Vasek said he was molested during a trip to Cincinnati in 1971 when he was 16 years old by a priest employed by the diocese in northwest Minnesota, according to the complaint.
In 2009 or 2010, Vasek told another priest about the abuse while he was considering becoming a deacon and that information was passed on to Hoeppner, according to the lawsuit.
After Vasek told Hoeppner he had been abused, “he felt pressure” from the bishop not to discuss the abuse, the complaint said.
Vasek’s son was ordained as a priest in Crookston in 2010 and Vasek entered the deacon program around 2011.
In 2015, Vasek said Hoeppner pressured him to sign a letter recanting his statements about his sexual abuse, according to the lawsuit.
Hoeppner told Vasek he would have difficulty ordaining him as a deacon if he did not sign the letter, and his son’s career in the priesthood would be hurt as well, according to the lawsuit. At that point, Vasek said he signed the letter and Hoeppner said he would keep it in his vault in case he ever needed it, according to the lawsuit.
“I knew that at that moment he was blackmailing me,” Vasek said in a statement.
Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Richard Chang