Sex Abuse by Priest was Known Priests and Parishioners Say
Then Archbishop Daniel Sheehan was Told about the Rev. Thomas Sellentin Years Ago
By Stephen Buttry, Todd von Kampen
April 9, 2002
More than 30 years ago, a delegation from St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Omaha went to Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, asking him to protect children from the Rev. Thomas Sellentin, two former parishioners said Monday.
Over the next 20 years, Sheehan transferred Sellentin to six parishes in rural Nebraska and one other Omaha parish.
Sheehan's successor, Archbishop Elden Curtiss, removed Sellentin on Sunday from his parishes in North Bend and Snyder, Neb., forcing him into retirement at age 62.
The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the archdiocese, said Curtiss recently learned that Sellentin had sexually abused boys at St. Joan of Arc and three rural Nebraska parishes where he was assigned in the 1970s and 1980 - St. Mary in West Point, Holy Family in Lindsay and St. Peter in Fullerton.
Gutgsell said Sellentin "has acknowledged" abusing the children. Efforts to reach Sellentin on Sunday and Monday were unsuccessful.
Priests and parishioners said in interviews that Sheehan, who was archbishop from 1969 to 1993 and who died in 2000, knew about the abuse at St. Joan of Arc and in Fullerton.
The Rev. Joseph Miksch confirmed Monday that Fullerton parents told him about abuse of their sons in 1980, when Miksch was on the diocese's Priests' Personnel Board. Miksch said he told Sheehan about the accusations.
Psychological views at the time, combined with Christian theology about forgiveness and second chances, Miksch said, help explain why sexual-abuse complaints against priests were handled as they were.
"The thing that's forgotten in this day and age is that at that time, if an allegation was made or whatever, the thinking was if you reprimanded the person involved or sent them to treatment ... it was figured that it was handled and it would never occur again," he said. Now people know that priests judged to be pedophiles "can't ever be reassigned again," Miksch said.
The Rev. Andrew Meister, then the pastor of St. Joan of Arc, said Monday that in that case, "everything was reported to the Chancery office."
St. Joan of Arc parents welcomed the removal of Sellentin. "This should have been done a long time ago," one parent said.
"We felt bad that he was transferred from parish to parish," said another parent of former St. Joan of Arc students.
Parents and priests interviewed about Sellentin stated repeatedly that sexual abuse was not as well understood in the 1960s and that challenging a priest was an unpopular move.
Parishioners who pushed to remove a priest risked alienation within the church. "My mother was ostracized," said broadcaster Carol Schrader, whose late mother, Pat Schrader, taught at St. Joan of Arc and joined the delegation that went to see Sheehan.
"In the 1950s and '60s, priests were priests," one former St. Joan of Arc parishioner said. "You just didn't question."
Some parents didn't believe their sons' accusations, splitting families.
The anguish for St. Joan of Arc parishioners was compounded by the fact that a few years later the Rev. Daniel Herek was assigned to the parish as assistant pastor. Herek also left a trail of abuse victims at several parishes across the archdiocese. He was convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting an altar boy.
Some of Sellentin's victims, now in their 40s, declined to be interviewed. Parents who agreed to interviews asked that their names not be used, to protect their sons' privacy.
Schrader and a parishioner who attended the meeting with Sheehan said he brushed aside their concerns about his plans to move Sellentin from St. Joan of Arc to St. Cecilia Cathedral.
"He was moving him away from the parish, and that was all we needed to be concerned about," one parishioner said.
Sheehan reportedly asked the group, "What do you want me to do?"
A parishioner responded, "Move him in with you. Let him sleep in your bedroom. You at least can protect yourself."
Schrader said the parishioners "were just as concerned that he get help."
Though people understood less about pedophilia 30 years ago, "they all knew that this man was not in total control," Schrader said. To reassign him to another parish where he would have access to a new group of children would be "like putting an addict next to drugs," she said.
A parishioner reportedly told Sheehan, "I have more empathy for this man than you do because I want him to get help."
Meister declined to speak in detail about the case. "That's 30 years ago, and I would not rely on my memory to bring up an accurate recollection," said the former St. Joan of Arc pastor, who is retired.
Meister confirmed that he discussed the situation in a meeting with parishioners.
A parent who was there recalled that the school cafeteria was about three-quarters full, with more than 100 people attending. At least eight priests attended, sitting at tables in the front. Each of the priests spoke. One, a parishioner recalled, stood up and said, "I hear no evil. I see no evil. I speak no evil."
Parishioners said Sellentin would come to classrooms at St. Joan of Arc School and summon boys in the seventh or eighth grades to help him with chores.
"I was so excited that this priest had taken such a special interest in my sons," one mother said. She thought he would help give the boys "a foundation in the church and morals."
A parent remembered telling a boy, "Father wants you to go up to the church and put up the Nativity scene." When the boy said he didn't want to go, the parent asked why, and the boy responded, "He's weird" but didn't elaborate.
Another mother said her son returned from an outing with Sellentin and said, "I don't want to go with that guy again. He's queer." The mother said her son was not molested.
When one parent went to tell Meister about abuse by Sellentin, Meister responded, "I was afraid that was why you were coming," the parent said.
A parent who insisted on removing Sellentin recalled that Meister responded, "If he does anything to harm himself, his blood is on your hands."
A decade after Sellentin left St. Joan of Arc, Miksch heard a new round of allegations from boys at the church in Fullerton.
Miksch, now pastor of St. Isidore at Columbus, was pastor then at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Duncan. He was one of six priests on the personnel board, which advises the archbishop on reassignment of priests to vacant parishes.
Miksch said he doesn't recall receiving any other sexual-abuse complaints against a priest in his six years on the board.
"Seldom do laypeople come forward with a complaint or (with) praise" about a priest, he said. "You don't deal with a lot of issues as such."
Miksch said he was assigned to follow up on the families' complaints because he was the closest board member, 25 miles southeast of Fullerton.
"I listened to the people because they had a concern," Miksch said. After he visited with two or three people and then talked with Sellentin about the allegations, Miksch said, "I relayed what I had heard to the archbishop, and that's when I stepped out of the picture. What decisions he came to, only he would know. We had no way of confirming if the allegations were true."
Miksch said he believed that the Fullerton families' stories were credible. "People don't (just) come up with stories like that," he said. But the allegations in that case "weren't as serious as people might expect them to be," he said. He declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality concerns.
Miksch said he didn't know whether Sellentin was sent to treatment or ever was determined to be a pedophile.
Sellentin has been "a gentle, compassionate and concerned priest," Miksch said. "What's unfortunate is he's done 37 years of good work, (but) admittedly, he's made some mistakes along the way. I think it's a tragedy that all the good work he's done will be forgotten."
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