Complaints About Herek Preceded Videotape's Discovery
By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World Herald
February 22, 1998
Top officials of the Archdiocese of Omaha heard several complaints about the Rev. Daniel Herek's behavior with boys before the discovery of a videotape and photographs that led to felony charges against the priest.
Ruth Ann Barth, former development director for the parish school at St. Richard Catholic Church, said that on two occasions she reported incidents of questionable conduct to a top official of the archdiocese. One incident occcured in early 1996 and the other in April 1997, about five weeks before the videotape was found.
She said she knows of others who reported concerns about Herek as well.
The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the archdiocese, said the archdiocese had heard concerns, but did not receive any reports that raised alarm until the tape was found in the rectory at St. Richard, where Herek was pastor.
In one of the incidents that Barth reported, she said, Herek and a youth who later was seen naked on the video shared a private room with a bed and a cot at an overnight retreat in April 1997. Herek, 52, who had been treated for alcoholism, was drinking on the retreat, said Barth, who was there.
Gutgsell said he did discuss the complaint with Herek but took no further action. Barth said Herek characterized the response to her as a slap on the wrist.
She said, "It's almost like the archdiocese said, 'Here's the camera, Daniel, go ahead and take the pictures.'"
Gutgsell did not confirm specific reports, except for the retreat. He said he had not heard anything "that would have been substantial in the way of something to follow up."
Barth's statements and the police investigation of Herek raise two other key questions about the archdiocese's supervision of Herek:
Whether his behavior at other parishes earlier in his 25-year career should have raised alarm. Police are investigating reports of incidents at other parishes where Herek served.
Whether Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss and Gutgsell should have allowed Herek to return overnight to the rectory, which is archdiocese property, after telling him on May 14 that the videotape and two photographs found in the rectory had been turned over to the archdiocese and would be given to police. The videotape and photographs depicted nude boys.
Barth said she worries that Curtiss and Gutgsell gave Herek a chance to remove evidence.
The next day, May 15, Herek left for nine months of evaluation and treatment at the St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Silver Spring, Md., that specializes in treating clergy with sexual disorders.
Herek was charged Feb. 13 with one count of sexual assault of a child and one count of manufacturing and possessing child pornography. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, free without bail.
Barth and Gutgsell were the only people to comment publicly about warnings to the archdiocese about Herek's behavior. Barth named four other people who she said also had complained before the discovery of the tape. Not all of those people could be reached for comment. None wished to speak for the record, but two people indicated they knew of efforts to report concerns about Herek to the archdiocese.
Barth said she quit her job with the St. Richard School because she no longer could stand to work for an institution affiliated with the archdiocese. After being asked by The World-Herald for an interview, she still worried about repercussions if she spoke publicly. At one point, she asked that her name not be used in this story, before agreeing to speak for the record.
"The reason I'm coming forward," she said, "is that I don't want this to happen anywhere else to anyone else."
Gutgsell, who became chancellor in 1994, said the archdiocese did not receive any reports that warranted Herek's removal from the parish, where he had served since 1992.
But the archdiocese did know of concerns about Herek's activities with boys. Once, Gutgsell said, "I was told before an outing that he was going to be the only man going." The chancellor said he called Herek and told him to be sure that another adult accompanied him with the youths.
After the outing, Gutgsell said, he verified that another adult had gone along.
He wouldn't say how many complaints the archdiocese received about Herek. "There are any number of times that people call here to complain about priests, even about their sermons," Gutgsell said.
He said he could not be sure what sort of reports any earlier chancellor might have received.
Herek has been on leave since May 15, the day after the archdiocese received the videotape and photographs. His pastor's salary was paid from St. Richard parish funds during the nine months he was being treated in Maryland, Gutgsell said.
The archdiocese is maintaining Herek now at less than a pastor's salary, Gutgsell said.
Herek's attorney, Steven Lefler, said he would contest the charges. Lefler said Herek would not consent to an interview for this story.
Questions and rumors about Herek go back for years.
"We're looking into incidents since he was ordained at other parishes," Police Officer Steven Henthorn said last week.
Lt. John Lehotyak said last July, after news of the investigation of Herek broke, that officers had received reports of alleged incidents 15 to 20 years ago. He said then that the reports did not include more recent incidents that could be prosecuted. Because of the statute of limitations, only sexual assaults alleged to have occurred since 1987 could be prosecuted.
Henthorn said police are investigating more recent reports, including at St. Ann Catholic Church, where Herek was pastor from 1989 to 1992.
Herek was assistant pastor at Assumption, Christ the King, St. Joan of Arc, Mary Our Queen, St. Peter and St. Bernard parishes in Omaha from 1971 to 1982. He was pastor of St. Michael Church in Coleridge and St. Mary Mission in Belden from 1982 to 1985. He was pastor of Holy Cross Church in Beemer from 1985 to 1989, before moving to St. Ann.
Police have not confirmed reports of misconduct at parishes other than St. Richard, Henthorn said.
What the archdiocese knew or knows of any questionable behavior at earlier parishes is unclear.
In an affidavit filed in May to obtain a search warrant at the rectory and Herek's house at 838 N. 77th St., Henthorn said Gutgsell had learned that Herek "has singled out altar boys at parishes he has served at as favorites. These altar boys have been taken on overnight trips and received special attention."
Gutgsell said last week that he has not heard any allegations of sexual misconduct with favored altar servers at other parishes.
"From the moment that I met him," Barth said, "there were always people who said things about him. There were rumors. Some of his behavior did seem inappropriate, but you look at it and you think, he's a priest, he's brilliant. For a while you overlook some things."
Herek confirmed Barth when she converted to Catholicism in 1993, joining St. Richard. Initially, she admired the priest.
"I was just struck with the fact that he was so brilliant, especially in history and theology." He taught religion to students in the fifth through eighth grades, making the Scriptures "come alive for them," Barth said.
Eventually, she said, "I realized that the behavior was very inappropriate, things like the amount of time he spent with (a particular boy)."
The boy, who is now 18 and declined to be interviewed, "was constantly at the rectory," and Herek took him shopping and camping, Barth said. "He never went anywhere without that boy," she said. "That's inappropriate for a priest."
Herek took some parish boys on a "weed-hunting expedition," staying overnight in a motel and bringing back some huge weeds to use in decorating the front of the church.
Barth first expressed her concerns to archdiocesan officials in early 1996, she said, when a school employee reported seeing Herek grab a boy's buttocks. She said she and Sue McCaslin, St. Richard School principal, reported the incident to Monsignor John Flynn, the archdiocesan development director, who died Sept. 15.
McCaslin, who remains the principal, declined to comment for this story.
Barth said she knew of another time that McCaslin and Sister Pat Mulcahey, the archdiocese superintendent of schools, reported some concerns. Mulcahey said she did not remember doing that.
Herek, who apparently trusted Barth even after he was sent to Maryland, complained to her after he was called to the chancery about grabbing the boy. If he found out who had reported him, Herek said, "there will be hell to pay."
As he ranted, Barth recalled, "I'm standing there looking at him thinking, 'I did it. What good did it do?' "
She doesn't recall whether he said which archdiocesan official or officials had discussed the matter with him. Gutgsell said he had no record of that complaint.
Frustrated that the diocese had not stepped in, Barth watched Herek closely. "I started going everywhere I could possibly go where the children were, so I could say to myself, 'Nothing happened that day because I was there.'"
She talked a lot with the priest, trying to stay close to him, in distance and in trust. "The only defense I had at that time to protect the kids was to befriend him."
Another incident that bothered her was when she went into the rectory after a Saturday night Mass, and a boy was complaining about other kids having burned his underwear.
She asked why he wasn't wearing underwear, and he said he had been soaked by a sprinkler while playing outside. He came into the rectory to shower, while Herek was around, and someone stole and burned his underwear.
The most troubling episode to Barth, before discovery of the tape, was the confirmation retreat, on April 3-5, 1997, at Platte River State Park. Again, she said, she told Flynn about her concerns.
She said Flynn asked her how she knew Herek had been drinking and shared a room with the youth. "I said I was there. I said, number one, I was drinking with him. It was the only way to get him calmed down. And, number two, I was in and out of the bedroom he and (the boy) shared many times over the course of those two days."
Gutgsell said Friday that he did not recall such a report. Saturday, after consulting notes, Gutgsell said he had discussed the retreat with Herek but did not investigate further.
Gutgsell said he confronted Herek about the retreat and he "said nothing indeed had happened."
Gutgsell said he did not see "any ability to pursue it." He said he never discussed the incident with Barth.
Herek again told Barth about being called to the chancery, she said. She said he told her, "I got called in and told that the drinking and sharing a room with (the boy) was inappropriate. Well, they can't (expletive) tell me what to do. So they slapped my wrist again."
Barth shook her head as she told the story. "It was like he had no regard for the authority of the archdiocese, and the archdiocese obviously had no regard for the people of St. Richard, because no matter what you went and told them, they sent him right back there."
While Herek was away on the retreat, Barth's niece, Julie Hansen, found the videotape. Herek had hired Hansen to clean the rectory and had given her the key and security code to clean while he was away. She viewed the videotape, which showed one scene with a naked boy, about 10 to 12 years old, frolicking in a church with two other boys. A second scene showed the favored altar boy posing naked. In both scenes, Hansen (and later Barth and Gutgsell) recognized Herek's voice off-camera, instructing the boys.
For several weeks after finding the video, Hansen was unsure what to do. On Saturday, May 10, she said, she was alone in the rectory again and watched the video again, just to be confirm she had actually seen what she thought she had. That day, she told Barth about it.
Barth said she contacted Flynn, who took the matter to Gutgsell. The chancellor asked her to bring him the tape. Gutgsell and Archbishop Curtiss were going to meet the following day, Wednesday, May 14, with Herek. With the help of another parish employee, Barth got the tape from the rectory while Herek was saying Wednesday morning Mass.
Instead of going straight to the chancery, Barth went home. She wanted to copy the tape.
"It was the only evidence," she said. "I had a real fear that I was going to take it to the archdiocese and it was going to disappear."
Her VCR was unable to copy the tape, but Barth watched and listened.
She pondered whether to take it to the archdiocese or the police. She decided to trust the church officials.
Almost right away, she said, "I started ruing the actions I had taken."
Meeting with Herek that afternoon, Gutgsell and Curtiss told him they were sending him to St. Luke Institute. They gave him a plane ticket for the following morning and allowed him to return overnight to the rectory.
"What evidence was destroyed in that time?" asked Barth. "I think that's exactly what the archdiocese wanted him to do."
Two weeks after meeting with Herek, Gutgsell turned the tape and photographs over to police. Police obtained a warrant to search the rectory and the house Herek owns on North 77th Street and seized videos and photographs at both locations. Court records do not indicate whether any of the material seized in the raid was pornographic.
An inventory of the materials seized May 30 from the rectory and Herek's house includes videotapes, slides and photographs, as well as video equipment, a movie card file, a notebook journal and a book on witchcraft.
Gutgsell said archdiocesan officials handled the matter swiftly and appropriately.
"Our priests aren't under 24-hour surveillance about what they do or don't do," Gutgsell said. "This was the first time in the years that I had been chancellor that materials of this type had appeared. I had no idea of anything else that we should be doing."
He said he did inform Herek at the meeting that the video and photographs would be turned over to police.
The discussion also covered "a number of other personal issues that we had no prior knowledge of," Gutgsell said. Those personal issues were to be part of his evaluation at St. Luke.
All along, Barth said, the archdiocese's actions regarding Herek have been "more about protecting him than protecting the children or protecting St. Richard."
Barth said she understands that "when you go to someone and say, 'I suspect this person is doing this,' it is hard for them to act on because they're suspicions. But in looking back, at any given moment in time, the archdiocese could have spared so many people so much pain."
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