Boys Town Haunts Men
Lawsuit: Decades after Being at the Banning Facility, They Have Accused Clergymen of Abuse
By Michael Fisher
The Press-Enterprise [California]
July 24, 2005
David wrestles with memories of reverence and revulsion, love and loathing when he discusses the Catholic clergymen who mentored him and those he claims repeatedly molested him nearly 40 years ago.
Now in his 50s, the Riverside man fondly remembers the priests at Boys Town of the Desert in Banning whose compassion and guidance still resonate with him decades later. But he bristles at the thought of two religious brothers he says molested him during the two years he spent confined at the residential-care facility for troubled and wayward boys.
"I remember laying in bed at night with my blankets pulled up to my neck, waiting for Brother Thomas to come in. I mean, where do you run when he's in charge of you?" said David, who asked that his last name not be used. "I was 11 years old. I was molested by the people that were supposed to be looking out for my safety."
Amid the wave of litigation accusing Catholic leaders nationwide of shielding sexually-abusive clergy, David is among five men suing the San Diego Diocese, claiming they were molested during the 1960s by staff at the Boys Town in Banning. The now-demolished school was modeled after the storied Nebraska institution made famous in the 1938 Spencer Tracy film.
The accusers, two of whom agreed to discuss their cases, lay lifetimes of trouble -- from prison to failed relationships to alcoholism and drug addiction -- on clergy abuse. The mistreatment, they say, stripped them of their self-worth and tainted their psyches.
"It ruined me," said John, a former Boys Town student who now hustles DVDs or washes car windows to pay rent at the Van Nuys motel he calls home. "It was just a smorgasbord for pedophiles."
Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia, spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, declined by e-mail to discuss the accusations, citing the litigation.
Sold in 1977
The San Diego Diocese managed Catholic parishes and facilities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties before the Diocese of San Bernardino was created in 1978. The San Diego Diocese sold Boys Town in 1977, eight years after the school moved from a dilapidated, turn-of-the-century former Indian school in Banning to a $4.5 million campus in Beaumont.
During its 20 years in operation, Boys Town of the Desert served as school and home to hundreds of troubled boys, sent there from across the state by child-welfare workers, probation officers or the courts.
The five lawsuits level sexual-abuse accusations against a handful of religious brothers, who are identified by their first names only, and the Rev. Robert Nikliborc. The longtime priest spent seven years as the school's director before he pleaded guilty to federal tax-evasion charges in 1968 and was reassigned to St. Anne's Church in San Diego.
Nikliborc, now 74 and retired, could not be located for comment.
Valdivia declined by e-mail to discuss Nikliborc's status with the diocese or to forward him an interview request. He noted that in more than 40 years with the diocese, Nikliborc has never before been accused of sexual misconduct.
The five lawsuits are among more than 850 clergy-abuse cases filed statewide in recent years. No trial dates have been set.
The nationwide wave of clergy-abuse lawsuits has generated settlements totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Boys Town accusers are identified by their first names in court documents. Their full names are being withheld by The Press-Enterprise, which does not routinely identify people who may have been sexual-abuse victims.
Raised by a Bible-thumping Baptist mother, David was 11 when he was sent to Boys Town in Banning in 1966 by a Los Angeles County judge for repeatedly running away from home, he said.
Decades later, he remembers the olive trees that lined the facility's driveway as it meandered past a stone grotto to the rundown buildings: the horseshoe-shaped dorms, the classrooms, a chow hall and the administration offices.
The boys were out of their beds by 7 a.m. and cleaned their dorms before breakfast. They attended classes and played sports. Good behavior earned privileges such as hiking trips or a night at the movies. Bad behavior cost boys their weekend passes home or special Sunday meals.
Discipline was strict, David said, recalling how one priest shoved a teen into a window for urinating in class.
David claims he had been at Boys Town a short time when a religious brother molested him in the laundry building. He can't remember the brother's name, but said the molestation occurred "a number of times."
Eventually David told a priest about the abuse during confession. That cleric alerted school administrators.
"I felt like I was the one who was wrong," David said. "I felt dirty or I wouldn't have been confessing it as a sin. . . . (The priest) broke confession to get that out in the open."
The priests who ran Boys Town threw out the abusive brother, he said.
"He was stripped of his habit. He was in street clothes and he was forced to walk off of Boys Town," David said.
After a few months, David was sent home. But by the time he was 13, he was ordered back for running away again.
David claims that after his return, a man he knew only as Brother Thomas began molesting him at night in the dorm.
"It was once or twice a week," said David, who described the abuse as fondling.
But this time, he told no one.
"I was too ashamed," he said.
The molestations cast confusion on the strong bonds David shared with other Boys Town workers, such as Brother Williams, a tall, red-haired man who strolled the campus every evening with the boys.
"There were some brothers there who I truly loved. They helped raise me. He was like a father figure to me," David said of Brother Williams.
David blames the abuse for the self-destructive lifestyle he later adopted. He picked fights, hung out with Hells Angels bikers and began taking and selling drugs.
"It made me to grow up to resent the police and authority figures, because it was authority figures that violated me," he said. "It made me violent because I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I was a man."
David said he spent more than a decade in prison on charges ranging from drug possession to auto theft. David said he has been sober for eight years.
He hid the abuse, David said, never revealing his secret to his parents or siblings. But recent media coverage of the clergy-abuse scandal led him to tell a friend, who urged him to contact authorities.
"He said, 'If you don't report this, if you don't do something about this, you are no better than the child molester who did this to you,' and that just made me start crying," David said.
Banning police Sgt. Bill Caldwell said detectives are investigating David's claims. But one of the accused brothers appears to have since died and the other may live in Italy, he said.
David decided to sue in search of accountability and, possibly, therapy, which he cannot afford.
"I want to be a better person. I feel I've come a long way, but you just can't do it by yourself."
Abandoned by his mother, John was 4 years old when he began bouncing between San Fernando Valley foster homes in the 1950s.
"She felt I was just excess baggage," John said, rubbing a hand over his stubbly beard and hair as he fidgeted in a Van Nuys coffeehouse.
A frequent runaway, John was about 13 when he was sent to Boys Town in Banning in about 1963.
John, who asked that his last name not be used, claims he was quickly targeted for abuse by two religious brothers who saw him as a discarded, lonely boy.
"They knew the vulnerable ones. I never had no visitors. I was a prime target," John said. "It was hell. I tried anything and everything to get away, even the runaway bit."
John said he reported the abuse to a school counselor, who accused him of lying. The next day, he claims, the brothers forced him to run between two long lines of boys who punched and kicked him.
"I opened Pandora's box (and) I got" beaten, he said.
John said the injuries landed him in the infirmary for three days, where one of the abusive brothers molested him again.
John said he learned to avoid defenseless situations, such as being alone. He got assigned to the mailroom, overseen by Nikliborc, where he sorted fund-raising checks.
John said Nikliborc took him to his Palm Springs home and to gatherings with donors.
"I guess it helps when you are trying to ask rich people for their money to take a cute kid with you," he said.
Embarrassed, John skirts questions about the abuse he claims to have suffered. In his lawsuit, he accuses Nikliborc of molesting him.
A Vietnam veteran, John raised four children as a single dad, working as an emergency medical technician and driving trucks before he suffered a mental breakdown.
"I'm not on a park bench. I'm practically there. But there's no excuse, if you've got two legs and two arms, that you can't make $60 per day," he said, a tattoo of a Christian cross peeking out from beneath his sleeve.
Officials with Boys Town in Nebraska said their organization was not affiliated with Boys Town of the Desert in Banning. Copies of the Official Catholic Directory from the 1960s describe the Banning facility as a protective institution in the San Diego Diocese for the care of 75 emotionally-disturbed boys, ages 12 to 16.
The directories note the center was run by diocesan priests and the Brothers of Charity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious order created by the Rev. Francis Nightengale, founder of Boys Town of the Desert in 1957. Nightengale died in 1999.
Valdivia said Boys Town of the Desert had no legal affiliation with the San Diego Diocese, but former San Diego Bishop Leo Maher once served as its president.
Valdivia said he could not locate any records regarding the Brothers of Charity.
Boys Town of the Desert was not without troubles. In 1966, several boys ran away, and police were summoned after others began pelting priests with stones. About that time, some boys accused a brother of "homosexual acts," leading to his removal, according to press reports.
In 1968, Nikliborc pleaded guilty to not filing tax returns on $112,000 in income between 1963 and 1965. Sentenced to two years in federal prison, he spent 97 days behind bars before a judge placed him on probation for one year.
At the time, federal prosecutors said Nikliborc owned a $75,000 home in Palm Springs under the alias Robert Rand. Neighbors said they knew him as a wealthy executive.
Soon after his conviction, Nikliborc was assigned to St. Anne's parish in the Barrio Logan area of San Diego. He retired in 2001, according to press reports.
In 1969, Boys Town was moved from Banning to the new Beaumont campus.
The school was sold eight years later for $1.8 million to a nonprofit group that cares for abused children.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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