Trail of Concern About Convicted Priest Goes Back to 1970s
By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World Herald
August 30, 1998
On at least half a dozen occasions starting in the 1970s, people reported concerns to the Archdiocese of Omaha about questionable conduct by the Rev. Daniel Herek.
Some of the concerns were about excessive drinking or vulgar language. Others were about Herek's interactions with young boys.
"We sent letters," said one parish leader who helped tell church officials about allegations that Herek improperly touched boys at St. Peter Catholic Church in the early 1980s.
The leader said boys told of Herek "getting them drunk, feeling them up and taking their pictures."
The parish leader, who declined to be identified for this article, said, "We went to them (church officials). All they did was move him."
Herek, who worked in 11 different parishes in 26 years as an Omaha Archdiocese priest, pleaded no contest Friday to charges of making child pornography and sexually assaulting a boy. The youth was from Herek's last parish, St. Richard Catholic Church, 4320 Fort St., and the assault occurred within the last five years.
The plea and resulting guilty verdict by Judge Stephen Davis raise questions about whether church officials ignored alarms about Herek's conduct from years earlier.
Church officials have said that did not occur, although they have declined repeated requests to discuss the earlier reports of problems with Herek.
Omaha police officer Steven Henthorn, who has led the criminal investigation of the veteran priest, said, "We've talked to victims from 1972 on."
Prosecutor Leigh Ann Retelsdorf said Friday that authorities know about a number of other victims, but that they extend beyond the 10-year legal limit for prosecution.
Neither Henthorn nor Retelsdorf would say how many victims the police have interviewed.
The World-Herald has confirmed a half-dozen instances when parents or other observers had alerted the archdiocese about problems with Herek. Those came from interviews with more than 60 people, including former altar boys, parents, parish leaders, students and employees at schools where Herek taught.
Most of those interviewed did not allege illegal actions. But most of the 60 people remembered conduct with boys that disturbed them, either at the time or in retrospect. Some saw no evidence of sexual misconduct, but criticized Herek as arrogant, inflexible and ill-tempered. Several complained about his heavy drinking (Herek has been treated for alcoholism). Some said they saw no signs of misconduct.
Nearly all parishioners remember Herek as an outstanding speaker who taught and preached with feeling and showed great knowledge of the Bible and church traditions. Several commented on moving Passion plays that Herek wrote and produced.
"He seemed like a very spiritual man," said City Councilman Subby Anzaldo, a parishioner at St. Peter, where Herek was assistant pastor from 1980 to 1981. "He conducted a beautiful service."
Archbishop Elden Curtiss and retired Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, who led the diocese for most of Herek's career, have declined repeated requests for interviews about Herek. On Friday, the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor for the archdiocese, said church officials would not comment further, at least until after Herek is sentenced.
The archdiocese could face considerable civil liability. Other dioceses where priests have been accused of sexual abuse have paid multimillion-dollar judgments and settlements. In July, a jury in Stockton, Calif., awarded $ 30 million to a victim of sexual abuse by a priest.
Also last month, the diocese in Dallas agreed to pay a total of $ 30 million to 11 former altar boys who had been sexually abused by a priest.
At least one of Herek's accusers has hired a lawyer, though none has sued.
Last year, when Curtiss received a videotape and photographs found in Herek's quarters, the church took action to keep Herek away from altar boys and schoolchildren. The videotape and photos both showed naked boys.
It is not clear how many previous warnings Curtiss, Sheehan and other church officials received about Herek or when they first learned of allegations about improper interest in boys.
Some people reportedly involved in incidents of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior during Herek's career declined to be interviewed for this article. Others spoke only on the condition that their names not be used.
Earlier this year, Gutgsell confirmed that people had reported some incidents and concerns to him before the videotape was discovered, but said the reports were not enough to raise alarm. More recently, Gutgsell has stopped answering questions about Herek.
Some people who had concerns about Herek through the years acknowledge that they saw nothing illegal. They just felt that what they saw was not how a priest should behave.
Chris Daily of Lincoln, who was married at the time to Herek's brother, John Herek, was living in Indiana in the late 1970s. She visited Omaha in 1977 or '78 with her son to visit family and stopped by the home of Herek's parents. Herek's mother, Bonnie, insisted that her daughter-in-law take the grandson to visit "Father Dan" at his mobile home, in a trailer park off Grover Street between 60th and 72nd Streets.
Daily said she dropped by the trailer without calling ahead and knocked at the door. Herek answered and, she said, she could see half a dozen or so boys about 9 to 12 years old running around the trailer in their underwear.
"Dan didn't seem to want us in," Daily said. He stepped outside, brusquely greeted the visiting relatives, then sent them on their way. The encounter troubled Herek's sister-in-law. "That doesn't strike me as an appropriate situation," she said.
Daily said she expressed concern about the priest's conduct in a letter to Sheehan. After about a month without a response, Daily said, she called the archdiocese. She was transferred a few times by secretaries, she said, then spoke with a monsignor whose name she does not remember. The monsignor, Daily said, promised to "take care of" her complaint. She heard nothing more about it.
Daily divorced Herek's brother in 1985.
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 and St. Ann Church in Omaha from 1989 to 1992 before becoming pastor at St. Richard.
At Christ the King Church, it was a tradition for graduating eighth-grade girls to rip out the hems of their uni-form skirts. One girl tore her skirt part of the way up the side as well, igniting a tirade from Herek.
"He told them they were a bunch of whores," the former student's mother said.
Several parents complained about the outburst to the Rev. Robert Gass, pastor at Christ the King. Gass did not return phone calls for this article.
Parish leaders at Holy Cross Church in Beemer said they complained to the archdiocese about Herek's behavior while he was pastor there. Parish council members would not comment on what they complained about, but a couple of parish leaders said the complaint was related to Herek's drinking, rather than improper sexual behavior.
At St. Richard, Ruth Ann Barth, former development director for the parish school, has said she had taken two complaints about his behavior with boys to archdiocese officials. She said she knows of others who reported concerns about Herek as well.
Barth first expressed her concerns in early 1996, she said, when a school employee reported seeing Herek grab a boy's buttocks. She said she and Sue McCaslin, then St. Richard School principal, reported the incident to Monsignor John Flynn, the archdiocesan development director, who died last year. McCaslin has declined to comment.
The other incident, Barth said, was reported in April 1997, about five weeks before the videotape was found.
Barth said she reported that 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.
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