Archbishop Gets a Public Education Since 1989
Elden Curtiss is Known to have Dealt with Four Cases of Sexual Misconduct Involving Priests
By Julia McCord
April 29, 2002
Like other U.S. Catholic prelates, Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss has received a painful and public education in dealing with priestly sexual misconduct.
In the three cases of actual sexual abuse that Curtiss is known to have confronted, he has removed the offending priests from their posts.
He did not quietly transfer the abusive priests from parish to parish like church leaders in Boston and elsewhere. Such cases have propelled the nationwide scandal.
On the other hand, Curtiss has admitted to mistakes in his handling of his first case, which came to his attention as a bishop in Montana in 1989. In his second case, involving abusive Omaha priest Daniel Herek, the archdiocese is being accused in lawsuits of ignoring warning signs on Curtiss' watch.
And in a separate instance that did not involve child sexual abuse itself, Curtiss transferred a priest after getting him counseling for a preoccupation with child pornography. Curtiss eventually reversed course and removed the priest from service in a Ralston parish.
Based on the disclosures from across the nation this year, Curtiss in 1989 appeared to be ahead of many of his colleagues in terms of grasping the seriousness of sexual abuse of children by priests.
His first known dealings came four years after the first major case drew national attention. Former Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe admitted to sexually abusing altar boys and Boy Scouts and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The church paid at least $ 18 million to an estimated 70 victims and their families.
Afterward, bishops made a big mistake when they didn't develop a national policy on how to handle such cases, said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
"They (bishops) thought of this as a moral fault rather than a pathology and that, with counseling and a supportive environment, people could get over it," he said. "You would think that they would have known better" after the Louisiana experience.
Now American Catholic leaders are discussing national standards for dealing with such allegations. A meeting at the Vatican last week laid the groundwork, and the issue is sure to dominate the U.S. bishops' meeting in June in Dallas.
In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Omaha is strengthening its policy on investigating and reporting sexual misconduct, said the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the archdiocese.
An addition about the viewing and/or possession of child pornography is in the works, and a one-page summary of the current policy is being prepared for parishes, schools and other agencies, Gutgsell said.
Curtiss declined to be interviewed for this story. Here are the four priest cases he has dealt with:
Curtiss was bishop of the Diocese of Helena in western Montana in 1989 when a former parishioner accused Smart of sexual abuse. Smart eventually admitted molesting more than 30 boys from 1957 to 1978. Curtiss became bishop there in 1976. The diocese settled with four victims out of court - one for $ 1.7 million, court records show.
In an April 1993 letter to parishioners, Curtiss said he had sent Smart away for alcohol treatment in the late 1970s "without ever having examined his file and with no indication of any sexual problem." He returned Smart to his parish.
Curtiss said in the letter that he looked at Smart's file only after the first accuser came forward. It was then that he discovered that the diocese knew in 1959 about Smart's attraction to boys and had sent him away for counseling. The diocese also sent Smart to alcohol treatment in 1969. In all three cases, Smart returned to parish ministry.
"It was a serious and tragic mistake," Curtiss wrote, "to have allowed Wilson Smart to continue in parish ministry. My predecessors and I did not understand or recognize the deep-seated disorder which led to the sexual abuse of children."
Curtiss also apologized to the families whose children were exposed to abuse by Smart and confessed to having removed two letters from Smart's file that documented the abuse.
"I never guessed that my actions would be construed later by the plaintiffs' lawyers to be the spoliation of evidence," Curtiss wrote. "I was concerned about future researchers reviewing the chancery file as it stood without any explanation of extenuating circumstances surrounding the two letters. I apologize to you for my shortsightedness and misjudgment in this embarrassing matter.
"There has been a climate of silence on the part of priests and people, but there can be no more."
On May 13, 1997, pornographic materials found by a cleaning woman at the rectory of St. Richard Catholic Church in Omaha, where Herek was pastor, were turned over to the chancery.
Gutgsell and Curtiss confronted Herek on May 14, removed him from the parish and sent him to St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., for evaluation and treatment the next day.
They told the parish that Herek was away for counseling for stress and burnout. After conducting an internal investigation, Gutgsell called the police on May 28 - two weeks after learning of the incident. It became public in July 1997.
Police interviewed Herek nine months later in February 1998 when he returned home from treatment. In August 1998, he pleaded no contest to two felonies - sexually assaulting an altar boy in his parish and making child pornography. He spent 21/2 years in prison and is now in a special program at the Lincoln Correctional Center for sex offenders, Gutgsell said.
Six lawsuits, including two scheduled to go to trial in May, are pending against Herek and the archdiocese. The suits accuse the archdiocese of ignoring reports of abuse by Herek before Curtiss took office and more recent warning signs during Curtiss' term. The archdiocese denies this.
Asked why the archdiocese sent Herek out of state before officials notified the police, Gutgsell said it took time to "clarify and verify" the allegations. The archdiocese would have brought Herek back for interrogation if the police had requested it, but they did not, he said.
"It was never a removal out of reach," Gutgsell said.
The head of the police youth services unit at the time, Lt. John Lehotyak, did not criticize the archdiocese's handling of the matter. "At this point they're cooperating with us," he said in 1997. "That's satisfactory at this time."
In interviews with The World-Herald in 1998, however, and in the lawsuits against the archdiocese, Catholics said they had complained to the archdiocese about Herek's conduct with boys.
Most of those warnings came during the administration of Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, who retired in 1993 and died in 2000. Gutgsell and Curtiss have said they removed Herek from his parish and turned evidence over to police when they received a videotape depicting naked boys.
However, Ruth Ann Barth, the former St. Richard School official who gave the video to the archdiocese, said she had told Gutgsell a month earlier that Herek was drinking and sharing a bedroom with a minor on an overnight retreat. Gutgsell said he discussed the complaint with Herek but took no further action.
The Rev. Rob Allgaier
Curtiss learned that Allgaier had been viewing child pornography on his computer at Sacred Heart-St. Mary parish in Norfolk in late January 2001. After Allgaier confessed during a Feb. 1 meeting, Curtiss suspended him from his teaching duties at Norfolk Catholic High School and arranged for a psychological evaluation and counseling.
Five months later, Curtiss transferred Allgaier to St. Gerald parish in Ralston without informing the parish council of Allgaier's problems. Mental-health professionals had assured him that Allgaier was no threat to children or anyone else, Curtiss said.
Norfolk police began investigating the case in October 2001 after receiving a tip. When the matter became public in February, Curtiss removed Allgaier from the parish. On March 1, Madison County Attorney Joe Smith filed a single misdemeanor charge of attempted possession of child pornography against Allgaier. The case goes to trial June 18.
Gutgsell said Curtiss didn't know that viewing child pornography on the Internet could be considered a crime until the police came calling. Curtiss said two weeks ago that he will remove any priest suspected of viewing child pornography until the allegations are investigated. Said Gutgsell: "A priest should not under any circumstances be viewing pornography of any kind."
The Rev. Thomas Sellentin
On April 7, Curtiss removed 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. Sellentin had served three Omaha parishes and eight in rural Nebraska during his 37-year career.
Sellentin confessed after Curtiss received a call from a victim and confronted the priest. Others have come to light since.
Curtiss warned in his statement announcing Sellentin's removal that the archdiocese is on record "that it will report any acts of abuse against minors by priests or employees ... when credible allegations are presented or abuse is discovered.
Said Curtiss: "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."
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