Omaha Archdiocese disclosure reveals clergy sex abuse secrets it hid for decades
By Christopher Burbach
December 09, 2018
| The Archdiocese of Omaha, located at 100 North 62nd Street. |
Photo by CHRIS MACHIAN
What the Omaha Archdiocese long sought to keep hidden, it is now shouting from the rooftops.
When it disclosed last month that 38 clergymen had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse or misconduct, some of the names were familiar — notorious priests who already had been defrocked or jailed.
But others — more than half — had been kept secret until last week, even though some of the reports of alleged abuse dated back decades.
And in an interview with The World-Herald last week, archdiocese officials said they had given to the state attorney general 100 additional names of church personnel who had faced claims of sexual misconduct or impropriety since 1978 — none of which they say were substantiated incidents involving minors. The church hadn’t disclosed that information in its release last month of the names of the 38 clergymen.
Among the 38, the allegations included some of the more popular priests in Omaha over the latter half of the 20th century, people who had been hiding in plain sight, such as:
The Rev. Robert Steinhausen and the Rev. Aloysius “Al” McMahon, whose names came to be enshrined on parish buildings.
The Rev. Richard Arkfeld, who used his struggle with lung cancer to inspire believers.
The Rev. Daniel Kenney, a Creighton Prep Jesuit with a monkey sock puppet who 50 years ago started the charity program Operation Others, in which Prep, Marian and other Catholic schools still participate.
Some were priests from foreign countries whose alleged misdeeds stayed hidden during their brief stints in Omaha, after which they moved on to other countries. Two are believed to still be in public ministry overseas.
Some were local priests who quickly moved on from Omaha, rarely to be heard from again.
The new names on the list showed the same disturbing pattern as the most notorious previously known clergy abusers in Omaha, such as Daniel Herek, Tom Sellentin and John Fiala.
Archbishops and other church officials often did not immediately report the allegations to law enforcement. In many cases, they only reported the alleged offenses many years later, after Catholic clergy sex abuse became a national scandal and U.S. bishops adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.
And church officials did not tell church members that the allegations had been made, even when they moved alleged abusers from parish to parish or banished them from Nebraska.
The secrets were hidden in files until public pressure, much of it from within the Catholic Church — and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office — prompted Omaha Archbishop George Lucas to bring the existence of the allegations out into the open. In the wake of the scandal of Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania — where about 300 priests were found to have abused at least 1,000 minors over the past 70 years — Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson this summer asked the state’s three Catholic dioceses to hand over any information on claims of sexual exploitation since Jan. 1, 1978.
On Nov. 30, Lucas announced that he had turned over the records. Lucas released the list of 38 priests and deacons against whom “substantiated allegations” had been made.
Omahan Jack Hosking, the father of one of Herek’s victims, said the list shows that the church hid the truth too long.
“It’s only when they get pinched that they ‘fess up,’ ” Hosking said. “The biggest sin is not reporting because it sheltered the predators. They didn’t stop just because they were moved. And more kids were abused.”
Archdiocese officials say they have changed the way they handle allegations and have established programs, such as safe environment training, to protect youths. They say they now quickly report abuse allegations to law enforcement. They noted that most of the alleged offenses took place before 2002, and some dated to the 1950s and ’60s.
From the dates provided by the archdiocese, most — but not all — of the allegations were reported during the tenures of previous Omaha archbishops, the late Rev. Daniel Sheehan (1969-1993), and the Rev. Elden Curtiss (1993-2009).
Curtiss issued an apology last week through the chancery that noted some of the offenses occurred while he was archbishop.
“I made personnel decisions that were based on practices that preceded the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” Curtiss wrote. “Some of these decisions would not be considered appropriate or timely by today’s safe environment standards.”
He said that he is “profoundly sorry for the pain” his decisions caused victims and their families and that he is praying for them.
In releasing the names on Nov. 30, Lucas apologized and said there had been “a pattern of failure.” That failure, he said, was “both on the part of those who misused their office to abuse minors and vulnerable adults, and on the part of those who refused to listen to victims in a compassionate, just and forthright way.”
Archdiocese officials stressed that point in follow-up interviews this week.
“We know there’s been a breach of trust, and we hope that this helps restore that trust,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese.
He said in the interview that the archdiocese had given to the attorney general the additional 100 names of church personnel who had faced claims of sexual misconduct since 1978, none of which he said was a substantiated claim of child sex abuse. He said they included many unsubstantiated allegations, and were what archdiocese officials considered “internal, disciplinary, human resource-type claims.”
“Nonetheless, we went beyond the AG’s already wide scope and gave him those names,” McNeil said. “Again, we erred on the side of caution.”
He and the Rev. Scott Hastings, vicar for the clergy, encouraged other victims to come forward.
“If there are victims out there, they deserve healing, they deserve recognition,” McNeil said. “They deserve to be heard.”
In a lengthy interview at the chancery last week, McNeil and Hastings declined to discuss details of the allegations or the dates and places they occurred. They said that is to protect victims’ identities and to avoid traumatizing them further. They would talk only in general about when the archdiocese received reports, when they reported them to law enforcement and whether they constituted sexual abuse or lower-level sexual misconduct.
Hastings said he hopes people view church officials’ handling of the matter as being transparent and reflecting what he said was the archdiocese’s zero tolerance for abuse.
“My motto is, I’m not going to hell or jail for anyone and I don’t have a boss that asks me to,” Hastings said.
He said he couldn’t tell from the files why some priests weren’t removed from ministry and reported to police sooner. In some cases, he said, the archdiocese had not made public names of priests accused of substantiated claims of sex abuse because the priests were dead. He said that policy has changed.
In the case of the Rev. Al McMahon, he was known for his Irish humor and joviality. He was “one of the most historically beloved priests in Omaha,” Hastings said. McMahon Hall at St. Peter Catholic Church is named for McMahon, whose postings included Boys Town, Norfolk Catholic High School and missionary work in Chile and Peru. He died in 2011.
Hastings said the archdiocese was notified in 1998 of allegations that McMahon abused two minors sometime between 1970 and 1975. Hastings said McMahon had retired in 1997.
Hastings said the archdiocese reported the allegations to law enforcement in 2004, after an internal audit of church files. He said the files did not explain the delay. He said McMahon disputed the claims, but that church officials had concluded they were true.
The Rev. Richard Arkfeld served at more than a dozen parishes, most in small Nebraska towns, during a long career as a priest that began in 1962.
“He was very well-liked,” Hastings said. “He was one of the priests that had a following.”
A 1989 World-Herald article told of great demand for Arkfeld’s humorous and uplifting message about his perspective from living with life-threatening lung cancer. He apparently also had a dark side.
The archdiocese received several letters and calls alleging that Arkfeld had sexually abused minors in the 1980s and prior, Hastings said.
“It was reported in the 1980s,” he said. “It appears nothing was done.”
People reported allegations to the archdiocese about Arkfeld again in 2010, 2014 and 2018, Hastings said. Akrfeld died in 1996. The priest who used to joke about his terminal cancer had this inscribed on his tombstone: “I told you I was sick.”
The Rev. Daniel Kenney worked at Prep from 1965 to 1989. The Omaha Archdiocese received a letter in 2012 from Kenney’s Jesuit province in 2012 that Kenney had been accused of abusing a minor. By then, Kenney had been removed from ministry, Hastings said. Kenney is alive and living in Wisconsin. He didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Jack Hosking’s then 12-year-old son was abused by Daniel Herek in 1977. Herek went to prison for molesting altar boys. Hosking said the archdiocese settled a lawsuit with his family.
“If Herek had been reported sooner, my son might not have been abused,” he said.
Hosking has been sharply critical of the archdiocese and Lucas for their handling of sex abuse for years. He stood up at a meeting of more than 1,000 people at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in November to join a chorus of people criticizing Lucas for assigning the Rev. Francis Nigli to that west Omaha church after Nigli had been accused of misdemeanor sexual assault of an 18-year-old.
Hosking said then that he saw a similar pattern in Lucas’ handling of Nigli’s case. But last week, he said he feels the times may be forcing a change for the better.
“There’s something happening,” Hosking said. “I’ve been pushing them for years and years about this, and suddenly, for the first time, my pastor has been calling me and saying thank you.”