Francis Hoefgen: Portrait of an abusive priest
Father Fran Hoefgen and the old St. Boniface in Hastings that merged with Guardian Angels to become St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
For four years he went into Minnesota parishes that were either struggling financially, or from sexual abuse allegations, and helped smooth things over. Then his conscience caught up with him.
Patrick Wall is convinced that he might still be in the Order of St. Benedict today had it not been for Francis Hoefgen, a troublesome priest who was quietly removed from a parish in Hastings. Wall was ordained a couple months later and soon vaulted into Hoefgen's old spot.
The year was in 1993 -- almost a decade after Hoefgen admitted to giving a teenage boy a blowjob. Police and prosecutors knew about it, and had done nothing.
In spring of 1983, Hoefgen was serving as associate pastor of St. Boniface in Cold Spring and making pastoral visits to the St. Cloud Hospital, where he met a suicidal teen whom we'll refer to as John.
During one of Hoefgen's visits, John confided that he was conflicted about his sexuality. Hoefgen responded, according to court documents, that it "was okay because God couldn't hate someone for loving someone." (Multiple messages left with Hoefgen, now 63, were not returned.)
Once out of the hospital, shortly after his 17th birthday, John moved into the St. Boniface parish house to live with Hoefgen. The two went one night to see a horror movie. They held hands, and Hoefgen put his head on John's shoulder during scary scenes.
Within a few days, John moved in with a foster family. It'd be almost a whole year before he told a social service worker that he'd been sexually assaulted by the priest while they'd lived together. Hoefgen believed it was consensual, even if the boy was underage.
According to a sworn statement taken by Cold Spring police chief Vince Konz -- away from headquarters, so as not to "cause speculation" -- Hoefgen confessed that he sodomized John on two occasions. Both times they'd been watching TV, late at night, inside the parish house.
Q. Did you place his penis in your mouth?
Q. Did you touch his penis with your hands?
Hoefgen gave John absolution after the first sexual encounter, but not the second, according to court documents. "That sin is still on his conscience," Konz would later say.
Three days later, Hoefgen was admitted to the St. Luke Institute, a Catholic-run treatment facility in Maryland that's been a destination for abusive priests and monks since the late 70s.
The Stearns County DA's Office sat on the information for two and a half years, then released a one-page memo. Despite Hoefgen's confession, deputy DA Patrick Strom did not believe the priest had broken the law. The problem, he argued, had been dealt with when Hoefgen went away to treatment: "Therefore, in consideration of all the above factors, I am not persuaded that the interests of justice require further prosecution in this matter and no prosecution is contemplated."
By that time, Hoefgen had returned to Minnesota. He was put back into ministry several years later at the newly formed St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, where it was later alleged that he'd abused a prepubescent boy.
John filed a lawsuit in the fall of 1992, and church officials quietly removed Hoefgen from ministry -- this time to be replaced by Wall. Wall assuaged parishioners and gathered up whatever bits of information he could, he says, then forwarded it along the chain of command.
"It wasn't the best thing for society," Wall says, more angry than regretful. "It was the best thing for the church, and if your ultimate goal is to protect the faith -- I guess I achieved the goal I was sent to do."
Wall left the priesthood in 1998 and reinvented himself as a religious legal consultant for attorneys on the West Coast who took on cases of clerical sexual abuse. He works today for Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who's made suing the Catholic Church a full-time job.
Two other lawsuits have been filed against Hoefgen within that last five years -- one of which Wall is working on. (Hastings police have said they've opened an investigation of their own.)
In response to that lawsuit, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released the following statement: "Any act of abuse against a minor or vulnerable adult is reprehensible and morally repugnant and we will not tolerate it."
In 2011, the same year Hoefgen was officially removed from the priesthood, he wrote a one-sentence letter of apology to a man whom he'd allegedly abused as a child in Cold Spring. Abbot John Klassen of St. John's also wrote a letter of apology, pledging that "appropriate boundaries between members of this monastic community and other persons are never violated again."
But this story has another confession. On Feb. 9, 1993, Vince Konz, the Cold Spring chief of police, gave a sworn statement in which he admitted to putting the interests of the "faith community" above the interests of John.
Konz explained his actions this way:
You know how these small towns are...I've always said that everybody can be classified in one of three categories. There's small people who speak of people, there's average people who speak of events, and great minds will speak of ideas. But there's so many small people in a small town like this, they could crucify the guy.
And maybe he had it coming, but that wasn't the way things were handled in those days.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.