Sex Abuse Costs Priest his Posts
Archbishop Curtiss Removes the Rev. Thomas Sellentin from two Nebraska Parishes
After he Admits Abusing Boys
By Stephen Buttry
April 8, 2002
Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss on Sunday removed the Rev. Thomas Sellentin from his duties at parishes in North Bend and Snyder, Neb., after he admitted sexually abusing boys as far back as 30 years ago.
The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the archdiocese, said Curtiss just recently learned of the abuse. A man who said he was a victim, prompted by news coverage about the national scandal in the church, came forward.
Gutgsell said the archdiocese had received abuse reports from four Nebraska parishes: St. Joan of Arc in Omaha, St. Mary in West Point, St. Peter in Fullerton and Holy Family in Lindsay.
People from two parishes said Sunday that church authorities knew about abuse allegations involving Sellentin more than 20 years ago.
Sellentin served three Omaha parishes and eight in rural Nebraska during his 37-year career.
When Sellentin was transferred from St. Joan of Arc in the 1960s after being accused of abuse, parishioners discussed the situation with the senior pastor, the Rev. Andrew Meister, said retired Nebraska Supreme Court Judge John Grant, who was at their meeting.
Sellentin also was transferred around 1980 from St. Peter in Fullerton after parents of about five boys took their sons to recount the abuse to a priest who they had been told handled moral problems for the archdiocese, according to two of the parents.
Those two incidents happened before Curtiss became Omaha's archbishop. Archbishop Gerald Bergan headed the church in Omaha and northeast Nebraska until 1969. Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, who died in 2000, served from 1969 to 1993.
Curtiss' statement Sunday announcing the removal of Sellentin said: "The Archdiocese is on record that it will report any acts of abuse against minors by priests or employees of the archdiocese when credible allegations are presented or abuse is discovered. The archdiocese has followed this policy during my tenure as archbishop."
The incidents reported to Curtiss "are now beyond the obligation of the reporting statute," he said. Because the statute of limitations has expired, criminal charges cannot be filed.
Curtiss said he relieved Sellentin of his pastoral appointment and gave him early retirement: "I have stated that I will apply our policy with a zero tolerance when it comes to child abuse, no matter when it takes place."
Sellentin, who was ordained in 1965, could not be reached at the rectories of either of his former parishes Sunday after the announcement. The churches are west and northwest of Fremont.
Gutgsell said Sellentin left the parishes after Sunday Mass. Gutgsell didn't know where Sellentin was Sunday evening.
He is the second priest in the Omaha archdiocese to be removed from his duties this year for allegations relating to sexual interest in children. The Rev. Robert Allgaier was charged in Norfolk with attempted possession of child pornography.
Many Catholics criticized Curtiss for transferring Allgaier to St. Gerald in Ralston after learning of the accusation against him. Curtiss did not remove Allgaier from his duties until the case became public, shortly before the charge was filed. The archbishop later said he regretted that delay.
The archdiocese also faces lawsuits charging that it transferred the Rev. Daniel Herek repeatedly despite knowing about his record of abuse. Herek was sentenced to prison in 1998 for sexually assaulting an altar boy.
Grant said Sellentin's exact offense was not discussed at the parish meeting after his transfer from St. Joan of Arc. Back then, the retired judge said, sexual abuse, especially by a priest, was not discussed as openly.
"Everybody was tippy-toeing around it, but it was widely known," Grant said. "We were all outraged."
Grant said Meister told parishioners that the incidents happened because "we don't have enough bathrooms in the rectory." Meister, who is retired, did not respond to a message left Sunday at his number in the archdiocesan directory.
Grant said parents were relieved to have Sellentin away from their children but didn't realize the danger he would pose to others.
Gutgsell said he first learned of the St. Joan of Arc Parish meeting last week when discussing Sellentin with Meister.
Another man reached Sunday night said Sellentin abused him in West Point, where Sellentin was pastor at St. Mary Parish from June 1970 to June 1972. The man would not discuss what happened but said other boys in the parish also were abused.
He welcomed Curtiss' action Sunday. "It should have been done 30 years ago."
The Rev. James Ryberg, the current pastor at St. Mary, said he knew Sellentin from their work in the Omaha Archdiocese. Ryberg said the reports were surprising. "He's a fine man as far as I know."
Two parents in Fullerton, which is west of Columbus, described Sellentin as charismatic. "People were very happy with him," a father said.
The parents said five or six boys said the priest abused them when they were at church for education or doing yard work. "He would get very angry if they would refuse to stay after school and help out," a parent said.
The parents said they went to the archdiocese with complaints about Sellentin in 1980. "We went all the way to Omaha to find somebody we could talk to for help," one said.
They described a bureaucratic run-around that led them to the Rev. Joseph Miksch, who they were told handled complaints involving morals. The parents took their sons to Miksch, and the boys met with him individually and told him what had happened, the parents said.
Sunday, Miksch did not return a call made to St. Isidore in Columbus, where he is pastor.
The Fullerton parents said Sellentin was transferred the week after their meeting with Miksch. The reason for his transfer was common knowledge in town, parents said.
Some parishioners, however, said they did not believe the allegations against Sellentin.
The Fullerton parents were considering telling Curtiss about their experience with Sellentin but hadn't yet. "We're so relieved because we were going to go to the bishop ourselves," one said.
After his ordination in 1965, Sellentin served two years at St. Stanislaus in Omaha, one year at St. Boniface in Elgin, two years at St. Joan of Arc in Omaha, two years at St. Mary in West Point, two years at Holy Family in Lindsay, two years at Blessed Sacrament in Omaha, three years at St. Mary in Spencer, a year at St. Peter in Fullerton, nine years at St. Boniface in Menominee and 11 years at Sts. Peter and Paul in Howells before starting at North Bend and Snyder in July 2000.
Loretta Smeal, a St. Leo parishioner from Snyder, said she liked Sellentin. "I'm as shocked as the whole world about any of this."
Curtiss said his decision "fills me with sorrow for Father Sellentin at this time in his life and ministry, and for the people he has served over the years, especially the people of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in North Bend and St. Leo Parish in Snyder. And I am filled with sorrow for any people who may have been hurt or scandalized by his behavior in the past."
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