Priest Enters Not Guilty Plea Herek Faces Child Pornography
Sexual Assault Charges
By Toni Heinzl
Omaha World Herald
February 14, 1998
The Rev. Daniel Herek, a priest in the Archdiocese of Omaha for 25 years, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of sexual assault on a child and manufacturing and possession of child pornography.
Herek, 52, entered the pleas to the two felony charges during an appearance before Douglas County District Judge Michael Amdor. Herek stood silent during the proceeding, and his attorneys, Steven Lefler and Larry Welch, addressed the court.
The pleas capped a day in which Herek turned himself in to police to be booked on the charges, appeared in Douglas County Court for a bail hearing and waived his right to a preliminary hearing.
Police Lt. Michael Butera said the investigation of Herek centers on a five-year period, from June 1992 to May 1997, and involves a boy not older than 14 in the St. Richard Parish, where Herek was pastor for five years.
The investigation is continuing, Butera said.
"He's charged with one count because we were able to confirm one count (of sexual assault) during the time frame," Butera said.
Lefler said the decision to bypass the preliminary hearing is intended to give the defense quicker access to the prosecution's evidence, speed up a trail and "avoid undue pressure on the young people" who could be called to testify.
Douglas County Judge Edna Atkins did not set bail for Herek and released him on the conditions that he have no contact with the alleged victim and no unsupervised contact with any children under age 18.
Herek, who is about 5-foot-5 and about 150 pounds, appeared to be uncomfortable during his court appearances and avoided looking at reporters.
Herek, who has been at a center in Maryland that specializes in treating clergy with sexual disorders, surrendered at Central Police Headquarters at 8 a.m. Friday, accompanied by his attorneys.
The timing of his return to Omaha this week was prompted by the completion of the police investigation and negotiations between his attorneys and prosecutors, said Welch and Deputy Douglas County Attorney Leigh Ann Retelsdorf. He could have faced an arrest warrant and extradition request had he refused to return to Omaha.
"I arranged with his attorneys last week that we would not issue an arrest warrant if he turned himself in this morning," Retelsdorf said.
The archdiocese sent Herek to St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Silver Spring, Md., that specializes in treating clergy with sexual disorders, on May 15. That was three days after a cleaning woman found two pornographic photographs and a video in the rectory of St. Richard Catholic Church, 4320 Fort St. Herek resided at the church.
Welch said that Herek had completed phases of his treatment program in Maryland but that he was not certain whether the priest had completed the entire program before returning to Omaha. Welch said he did not know whether Herek was continuing any type of treatment in Omaha.
Lefler said Herek is still associated with the archdiocese but no longer has ministerial duties at St. Richard.
"He does have some more administrative assignments," Lefler said, declining to elaborate.
The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said he was not sure what Herek's status with the church would be while he awaits trial, or what duties he might be assigned.
Herek's return and arrest were worked out between his attorneys and authorities without any involvement by the archdiocese, Gutgsell said.
The defense attorneys, who work for separate law firms, said they were hired by Herek and his father.
In a press release, the archdiocese said, "The archdiocese will cooperate with the authorities as the judicial process takes its course. At the same time, the archdiocese is concerned for the well-being of Father Herek as he and his legal counsel respond to the entered charges."
Sexual assault on a child is defined as an incident involving a victim 14 years and younger and an offender 19 years and older. The offense involves sexual contact without penetration, Retelsdorf said.
For first-time offenders, the sexual-assault charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, Retelsdorf said. The charge of manufacturing of child pornography carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, she said.
Herek is charged with one count of each offense for two possible reasons, Retelsdorf said.
"We do that in cases where a child cannot specifically remember a day when the offense occurred," Retelsdorf said, or when a child says it occurred a number of times.
There also is a statute of limitations on such charges which expires seven years after the alleged offense, Retelsdorf said.
Gutgsell said he did not know of any similar criminal cases involving priests in the archdiocese.
He recalled arrests of priests for trespassing during protests at Offutt Air Force Base, and some priests of the Oblate missionary order were arrested in 1984 on felony charges of destruction of government property.
A Lincoln priest went to prison after pleading no contest in 1987 to a charge of sexual contact with a child.
Sue McCaslin, principal at St. Richard School, said she told students in the fifth through eighth grades Friday that they would be hearing on the news after school about Herek's arrest. She told them what she knew about the case and assured students that "we would try to find answers if they had any questions."
The school would not allow news reporters or photographers into the school, she assured the students.
Neither McCaslin nor Gutgsell would say how many students or families had sought the counseling offered at the archdiocese's expense after the investigation became known publicly. "We've told everyone we're here to help our kids if they had difficulties," McCaslin said.
She said enrollment this year is 191, four more than last year. Fund-raising appears on pace to match the $ 120,000 the school raised last year, she said.
"The community has been quite supportive in our development activities," she said.
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