Archbishop Rebukes Two Who Questioned Him Archbishop's Letter To Jeanne Bast
By Chris Burbach
Omaha World Herald
March 19, 2002
Two Roman Catholics have received written rebukes from Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss after publicly criticizing his decision to reassign a priest who had viewed Internet child pornography.
"You should be ashamed of yourself!" the archbishop wrote to Jeanne Bast, an 80-year-old mother of 11 and a retired Catholic grade-school teacher from west Omaha.
In another letter, Curtiss told Ralston resident Frank Ayers that someone who criticized church leadership as Ayers did is "a disgrace to the church."
The archbishop sent copies of the letters to the writers' pastors. And he instructed both people to say one "Hail Mary" prayer for him as penance. Typically in the Roman Catholic Church, priests assign such prayers as penance to church members who have confessed sins.
Curtiss could not be reached for comment. The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, archdiocese chancellor, declined to comment on the letters individually or generally.
"The archbishop considers any letters he's written as between himself and whoever received them," Gutgsell said.
Bast and Ayers wrote letters to The World-Herald's Public Pulse regarding Curtiss' decision to assign a priest who had viewed Internet child pornography to St. Gerald parish in Ralston.
Both questioned Curtiss' assertion that children of the parish were in no danger. Ayers wrote that the archdiocese needed to be more forthcoming with what information it has about deviant behavior of some priests. He noted that the archdiocese didn't inform parishioners about either the Rev. Robert Allgaier's viewing of child pornography or Daniel Herek's sexual abuse of children while he was a priest until after the news media broke the stories.
Bast wrote that Curtiss owed the people of the archdiocese "a public apology for not being truthful and forthright about this problem from the very beginning."
The letters were published this month on the newspaper's editorial pages. Bast heard from Curtiss in two days; Ayers in six. The newspaper contacted Ayers and Bast after learning of Curtiss' letters and their basic content. The two confirmed having received them and disclosed their exact content.
The letter to Bast read, in part, "I am surprised that a woman your age and with your background would write such a negative letter in the secular press against me without any previous dialogue. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Curtiss went on to say, "The Church has enough trouble defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics."
Bast said she found the letter demeaning.
"'You should be ashamed of yourself'?" she said. "Nobody says that to an 80-year-old woman. And what does my age have to do with it?"
She said the letter alternately angered her and struck her as laughable. As for the penance, she said, "I'm not seeking absolution."
Bast said she took exception to being described as a disloyal Catholic. She said the points she made in her letter were not an attack on the Catholic Church but on Curtiss' handling of the Allgaier issue, following as it did on the heels of the current Boston scandal and the Herek scandal in Omaha. She said she has spoken with many Catholics who agree with her.
"I just thought it needed to be said," Bast said. "I think more people, Catholic people, need to come out and say it in public so something is done about it."
The archbishop's letter to Ayers read, in part, "Any Catholic who uses the secular media to air complaints against the leadership of the church, without dialogue with that leadership, is a disgrace to the church."
Curtiss offered to discuss Ayers' Public Pulse letter with him if he would make an appointment.
Ayers, 58, who said he is an active Catholic and a St. Gerald parishioner, said he did nothing that merited being assigned penance.
He first thought Curtiss' letter was a hoax.
"As I realized it was genuine, I was surprised by both the content and the tone of it," he said. "I do take exception to being described as a disgrace to the church because I publicly disagreed with him on the Allgaier issue without consulting with him first."
Ayers said he had waited for Curtiss' public statement on his decisions in the matter, then responded to it.
"It's not a matter of church doctrine," Ayers said. "It's an issue of whether the archdiocese endangered the children of St. Gerald and St. Joan of Arc."
Curtiss learned in early 2001 that Allgaier had viewed child porn on an office computer at Norfolk's Sacred Heart-St. Mary Catholic Church, where he was assistant pastor. Allgaier was removed from his teaching duties at Norfolk Catholic High School.
The archbishop has said that psychologists' and counselors' evaluations of Allgaier indicated that he was not a threat to children. After those evaluations, Curtiss assigned Allgaier to St. Gerald. His duties included teaching religion at St. Joan of Arc-St. Gerald Middle School in Omaha.
Curtiss removed Allgaier from the Ralston parish in late February, just before Madison County authorities charged Allgaier with attempted possession of child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty.
Allgaier has not been accused of any improper behavior with children in Omaha or Norfolk.
Ayers said St. Gerald parishioners expressed sympathy for Allgaier at a parish meeting with Gutgsell March 12.
"It's clear from the meeting that Father Allgaier has a lot of good gifts," Ayers said. "But we have a problem with the way this was handled by the bishop."
He said church members should be able to raise questions on the issue, especially in light of what has happened in Boston, where the Rev. John Geoghan was convicted of indecent assault on a 10-year-old boy. He may have had more than 100 victims, authorities say. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is under fire for transferring Geoghan from parish to parish, even though the priest had a history of being a child molester.
In Omaha, Herek was convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old altar boy while pastor of St. Richard Catholic Church. That case has led to several lawsuits. Plaintiffs accuse the archdiocese of knowing that Herek was dangerous and failing to protect parishioners. The archdiocese has settled two federal suits. Six are pending in state court.
"The clergy and the laity have been silent about this in the past, and it has not served the church well," Ayers said. "We're going to discuss it openly and publicly. The bishops in the United States aren't going to be allowed to handle this quietly any longer."
Ayers said he is sad for the Roman Catholic Church. He said that St. Gerald has a "very good pastor" in the Rev. Gary Ostrander and that the parish is trying to put the controversy behind it "and just heal." He said he stands by his and others' right to question the archdiocese.
"The victims of this are the children who are abused, the good priests who are suspected and, in this diocese, the good Catholics who are told to keep quiet," he said.
Archbishop's letter to Jeanne Bast(6,3/20/02)
Dear Ms. Bast,
I am surprised that a woman your age and with your background would write such a negative letter in the secular press against me without any previous dialogue. You should be ashamed of yourself! At least you should have reviewed my statement regarding Father Allgaier and checked the facts before making such a statement.
The Church has enough trouble defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics.
For your penance you say one Hail Mary for me.
I am sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Elden Francis Curtiss
Archbishop of Omaha
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