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  Sheehan Failed to Mention Second Priest

By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World-Herald
June 2, 2002

Former Archbishop Daniel Sheehan apparently lied, forgot or did not take seriously sexual-abuse allegations against another priest when he was testifying in a lawsuit involving former priest Daniel Herek.

Sheehan testified under oath in a deposition in the Herek case on May 26, 2000, five months before the former archbishop's death of a brain tumor.

The deposition is one of more than 60 exhibits in six pending civil suits against the Omaha Archdiocese, charging negligence in supervision of Herek.

Sheehan repeatedly said in his deposition that he could not recall dates and details. As the deposition began, the retired archbishop said he was under medication but feeling well and unimpeded from answering questions. He felt well enough to play golf shortly before his testimony.

Answering questions from attorneys for former altar boys who are suing the archdiocese, Sheehan repeatedly said the only sexual-abuse allegations he dealt with involved Herek. Sheehan was archbishop from 1969 to 1993. Before that, he was chancellor and auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Gerald Bergan for 20 years.

In April, Sheehan's successor, Archbishop Elden Curtiss, removed Thomas Sellentin from his ministry, saying the priest had admitted abusing boys years ago.

In an interview with The World-Herald after Curtiss removed Sellentin, the Rev. Andrew Meister, former pastor of St. Joan of Arc in Omaha, said archdiocesan officials knew of allegations against Sellentin when he was at the parish in the late 1960s. The situation was addressed at a parish meeting.

The Rev. Joseph Miksch, who was on the archdiocese's Priests' Personnel Board at the time, said in an interview that he had told Sheehan about allegations that Sellentin had sexually abused boys at St. Peter in Fullerton in the late 1970s.

In his deposition for the Herek lawsuits, Sheehan gave no clue about the Sellentin case. An attorney asked, "How many allegations of sexual abuse by a priest have you handled during the time that you served as archbishop?"

"Hardly any," Sheehan responded. Asked how many, he said, "I only can think of one issue right now." That was Herek, he said. The lawyer pressed, "Were there any others?"

"Well, fortunately in the Archdiocese of Omaha we never had any other serious complaints," Sheehan answered.

The Rev. James Cain, chancellor under Sheehan from 1969 to 1981, said in a deposition that the archdiocese knew about allegations against Sellentin. A lawyer asked Cain a question similar to those posed to Sheehan. The former chancellor said the archdiocese had sent a priest for treatment after he "had touched boys improperly, allegedly." Cain identified the priest as Sellentin.

Cain said he would field complaints from parishioners, and Sheehan normally would deal directly with a priest who needed correction. For instance, after complaints about Herek having children at his trailer, Cain said, Sheehan told Herek to get rid of the trailer.

"There were times," Cain testified, "that I would ask the archbishop what he was going to do or had done, and he would say that he would take care of it, and I didn't pursue it further than that."

Cain declined to comment Friday about his testimony.

A lawyer also asked Sheehan, "Have you ever spoken with any parents or other family members of victims of sexual abuse by a clergyman or religious?"

"No, I don't believe that I have," the archbishop said.

Again, recent statements contradict Sheehan's testimony. The mother of a boy who was molested at St. Joan of Arc in the 1960s told The World-Herald that she was among four parishioners who went to Sheehan to complain about abuse by Sellentin. Broadcaster Carol Schrader said her late mother, Pat Schrader, a teacher at the school, attended the meeting with Sheehan and gave a similar account.

Sheehan denied in his testimony that Herek was shuffled from parish to parish because of complaints about sexual abuse. "My own feeling is I'd be very cautious about reassigning anyone that had some problems of that kind," Sheehan said.

Herek's fellow priests thought differently. Vincent Mainelli, who left the priesthood in October 2000, testified that Herek moved so often that his fellow priests wondered whether sexual impropriety was involved.

"It would just be, you know, an allusion to the fact, well, he hasn't been there very long, why is he being moved around so often?" Mainelli said.

The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor since 1994, said in a deposition that Herek's frequent moves did not necessarily mean he was in trouble each time.

Court records show the archdiocese in 1996 adopted a policy that generally gave pastors a six-year term at a parish and assistant or associate pastors three years. Prior to 1996, pastors in many parishes stayed a decade or longer.

In six Omaha parishes where Herek was assistant or associate pastor, he served one year three times, two years twice and four years at St. Joan of Arc. He served three years twice and four years once as pastor before moving to St. Richard in 1992. He was in his fifth year when he was removed from his ministry.

Other than Herek, Sheehan said, the only suggestion of sexual abuse involving a priest that the archbishop heard was "just a kind of a suspicion." He said the suspicion surfaced in the late 1980s or 1990s.

"It wasn't a case of any kind of flagrant abuse or anything of that kind," Sheehan said. "They didn't accuse the priest of any kind of sexual abuse or anything of that kind."

The archbishop handled the situation with "an informal consultation with the people involved."

 
 

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