Boys Town Saga
An Ambitious Administrator Ends up in the Diocese's Poorest Parish
By Jon Standefer
San Diego Union-Tribune
December 29, 1985
The poorest parish in San Diego is that served by St. Anne's Catholic Church on Sicard St. in Barrio Logan.
The pastor of St. Anne's is 53-year-old Robert D. Nikliborc, and he has been pastor there for 15 years. Fifteen years in the poorest parish is a long time, whatever the rewards. These days, priests are usually rotated every few years.
In fact, the name of Nikliborc came up several times before the committee of priests, which advises the bishop on personnel matters, says a former member of the panel, but a transfer has always been blocked by Bishop Leo Maher. Some insiders see the priest's long servitude as punishment, for before he became the humble parish priest of Barrio Logan, Father Nikliborc was at the center of the most sensational financial scandal in the diocese's brief history, one that did nothing to enhance the reputations of the three men who have worn the bishop's miter here. In 1936, the four counties of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino were broken off from the Los Angeles archdiocese to form a new diocese.
The founding bishop, named by Pope Pius XI and installed on Feb. 2 1937, was an ebullient Irish-American named Charles Francis Buddy. The new diocese presented problems.
Buddy referred to San Diego as being "at the rim of Christendom," and later said, "When I arrived, we had 63 parishes, 36 grade schools, no money and not a cent of credit." His abiding dream was the establishment of what later became the University of San Diego, "the shining jewel to crown the diocesan educational structure."
He achieved his dream, but it is widely acknowledged that the price was a staggering debt and a legion of embittered priests, who felt squeezed by the additional assessments Buddy placed on parish offering plates. A shortage of priests, always a problem, was sometimes met by Buddy hiring priests who could not, for one reason or another, get a job anywhere else. "San Diego was known as a place where the bishop would hire any priest who wandered into town.
He'd send them out to Imperial County to see if they could do the job," says one observer, who adds that many of the priests suffered from alcoholism or other mental or health problems and the turnover was rapid. A longtime San Diego priest's more charitable view: "Well, Buddy didn't take just anyone, but he did have a tendency to give a priest a second chance." One of his more fateful appointments came in 1957, when Buddy sent 25-year-old Robert Daniel Nikliborc, recently ordained as a priest, to help run an out-of-the-way orphanage in Riverside County. Trouble at Boys Town Founded by Franciscan monks in 1890 as an Indian school, by the late 1950s it had been renamed Boys Town of the Desert and was being operated by the Religious Brothers of Charity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an order created by the diocese of San Diego. Boys Town was a rundown collection of buildings near Banning, between Riverside and Indio, home to about 70 boys aged 12 to 17. Some were orphans, some had been simply abandoned by their parents, some were juvenile delinquents. Nikliborc's title was assistant to the administrator, and he was put in charge of mail solicitation donations.
He was soon named president of the non-profit corporation and oversaw all financial affairs. The young priest was an ambitious administrator who embarked on a nationwide fund-raising project, with the aim of building a first-rate boys' home, after the style of the Rev. Edward Flanagan's successful Nebraska operation, Boys Town. He hooked up with a Chicago man named Harold Sager, who called himself "Col. Harold McClintock."
Sager, who had earlier gotten in trouble for soliciting money for Disabled American Veterans, formed an Illinois company to handle salvage sales. Cash donations began arriving in the mail, and Nikliborc and Sager made the rounds of large companies to solicit items for resale as salvage, such as trucks, tractors, surgical needles, generators, furniture and drill presses. Later, residents and employees would recall warehouses full of material headed for salvage.
And they would recall large sums of cash, counted daily in the mail room.
And they remembered that Nikliborc came by every day, picked up the cash, and drove off to Palm Springs to deposit it in a bank. Rome concerned Back in San Diego, Buddy's own building program had become his undoing.
By 1963, when the diocesan debt was an estimated $20 million, Rome was concerned enough that Pope Paul VI appointed the auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, Francis J. Furey, as apostolic administrator of the diocese. Although public announcements at the time were careful to picture Furey as merely the bishop-in-waiting to the aging (75 years) Buddy, in fact Buddy had been kicked upstairs and Furey had the reins of authority from the moment he set foot on the tarmac at Lindbergh Field.
Buddy was given a ceremonial post, assistant to the pontifical throne, and died three years later. Furey, in the view of many, was a top-notch administrator who whipped the financial posture of the diocese into shape, reducing the debt to about $15 million in six years. With the pressing financial problems of the diocese, Furey may not have paid close attention to the fund-raising program at the desert orphanage. So in 1967, when Nikliborc was ready to build and obtained a $2.5 million construction loan, the bank not only took a trust deed on the property but got the personal guarantee of the San Diego bishop. The new Boys Town was built, and it was impressive indeed: dormitories, a dining hall, chapel, swimming pool and administration building.
There was one problem: There was no money to repay the loan. However shocking that fact may have been to church officials, who found the diocese on the hook to the bank, it was no surprise to state and federal law enforcement investigators, who by 1968 were looking into the hidden lifestyle of Nikliborc after finding inconsistencies in the financial reports that non-profit, tax-exempt organizations file with the state. According to a former assistant attorney general, who included the case in a book, investigators discovered that Nikliborc, despite no provable source of income, had managed to bank nearly $500,000 in the previous nine years.
He bought the Palm Springs home of entertainers Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse in 1960, where his neighbors knew Nikliborc as Robert Drew Rand, an electronics company executive. He also bought an expensive home in Las Vegas for a cocktail waitress he met on one of his many gambling trips.
He leased a 190-acre ranch, chartered airplanes, sponsored and paid expenses for an all-woman bowling team, and bought 10 cars in the previous five years, six of them Cadillacs. Nor was it difficult to learn the source of Nikliborc-Rand's wealth. Former employees, residents and clerics of Boys Town gave investigators statements about the vast amounts of cash that came in response to mail solicitation and other fund-raising activities.
Investigators concluded that as much as $40,000 a week came in at the height of the fund raising, perhaps $3 million over a nine-year period.
All of it was under the control of Nikliborc. The state investigation of Nikliborc came to an end when federal authorities in Los Angeles filed charges against him for failure to file income tax returns for the years 1963, 1964 and 1965. He pleaded guilty to the charges in early 1969 and served 97 days in the federal prison at Terminal Island before being released on one year's probation.
He was in jail when Furey was named to head the archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas. The new bishop of San Diego, Leo Maher, automatically assumed the chairmanship of the board of Boys Town of the Desert.
He changed the name to American Boys Ranch, a new administration was installed and began repaying the bank loan. With the new facilities, American Boys Ranch had no trouble obtaining placement of boys from various state and local agencies.
By 1976, the ranch was receiving more than $1 million a year from various government grants. In 1977, American Boys Ranch was closed and its land and facilities sold to a non-religious, non-profit agency called International Orphans Inc. for $1.35 million.
That was a bargain basement sale price, considering that American Boys Ranch's own board of directors had estimated the fair market value of the property at more than $4 million. In 1978, the San Diego diocese itself was split, and San Bernardino and Riverside counties became the diocese of San Bernardino.
The San Diego diocese lost 87 parishes and 235,000 Catholics. 'Never took a penny' Nikliborc was transferred to San Diego after he got out of prison and, since 1971, he has been the pastor of St. Anne's. According to Riverside County records, he still owns the swank home in Palm Springs.
The house is in a subdivision where the last four sales have ranged from $250,000 to $525,000. In an interview last year, Nikliborc insisted that he "never took a penny from Boys Town."
The state investigation, however, focused on whether the wealth the priest acquired was money meant for the orphans' home.
Former Deputy Attorney General Wallace Howland said recently that his probe was stymied by a failure to obtain records from Illinois, where the salvage sales took place. Nikliborc will not talk about the sources of his wealth, or the double life he led in Palm Springs, except to say that he bought the house there with a bank loan, which does not, however, appear among the Riverside County legal recordings as is normal practice. Former state investigator John Fiscus, like Howland long since retired from the attorney general's office, recalls that diocesan lawyers making a follow-up investigation urged that the state case be dropped: "They said they were going to get that (Palm Springs) house back.
That was one reason they wanted the state to drop it and let them take care of the matter." The state did drop the case, but the church never recovered Nikliborc's assets. Investigators have said that church secrecy frustrated their pursuit of the case.
There also have been persistent reports that members of the church heirarchy benefitted. "Not true," says Nikliborc about payments to higher-ups. But he does say that Bishop Furey, who died in 1979, ordered him to plead guilty to the income tax charges to put an end to the investigation.
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