Investigation finds 258 Nebraska victims of clergy sex abuse since 1978

Omaha World-Herald ( [Omaha NE]

November 4, 2021

By Christopher Burbach , Paul Hammel

A Nebraska Attorney General’s Office investigation of clergy sexual abuse documented 258 victims across the state’s three Roman Catholic dioceses, along with a familiar-sounding pattern of behavior by church officials that often protected the predators.

Attorney General Doug Peterson, at times holding back tears as he spoke of the damage done to young victims, released a report on the investigation at a Thursday press conference. He said many of the cases found during the three-year-long probe were gut-wrenching. Few had been prosecuted.

Peterson said the vast majority of cases happened before the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The “Dallas Charter” required all dioceses to take steps to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report found that more than half of the victims were abused in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Peterson said the Dallas Charter appears to have made a difference. He said it appears that church officials currently report allegations of abuse to law enforcement. He commended the Catholic Church for the steps it has taken.

But at the podium and in the written report, he and his investigators strongly criticized Nebraska bishops’ and other church leaders’ behavior in the past.

“The most troubling finding from this report is the fact that on numerous occasions, when there was an opportunity to bring justice to the victims, those in authority chose to place the reputation of the church above the protection of the children who placed their spiritual care in the hands of those in church authority,” Peterson wrote in the report. “The depth of physical and psychological harm caused by the perpetrators, and the decades of failure by the church to safeguard so many child victims, is unfathomable.”

Peterson said no additional prosecutions — against perpetrators or church officials who failed to report them — could come from the cases found in the report. He said that’s because the statute of limitations has passed or because the alleged perpetrator has died in all of the cases but one. In the lone exception, Peterson said, the victim was unable to proceed with a prosecution.

“We have been unable to bring our own justice system to bear on these predators,” he said. “That’s extremely frustrating.”

But Peterson expressed hope that at least victims’ voices had been heard. He also said he would support legislation to change Nebraska’s statute of limitation laws. State Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha said he is working on such legislation and hopes to introduce it in January.

The 182-page report said there were 158 victims in the Archdiocese of Omaha, 97 in the Diocese of Lincoln and three in the Diocese of Grand Island.

More than 90 of those were attributed to two priests, Monsignor Leonard Kalin, who served on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Rev. Daniel Herek of Omaha. Kalin is dead. Herek was prosecuted in the 1990s and served 2 ½ years in prison for molesting altar boys while a priest at St. Richard Catholic Church in North Omaha.

Overall, 57 church officials or employees — 51 priests, four deacons and two school teachers — were found to have been involved, according to the report. The names of all but two of them had previously been publicized.

Peterson said that in many cases, church leaders and others did not take seriously credible reports of abuse. The report chronicled many such instances in detail. And it came to a disturbing conclusion.

“In sum, we found the dioceses enabled clergy child sexual abuse by: transferring abusive priests to new parishes; taking no action to restrict their ministry or access to children; telling the families of victims not to report the abuse; and not reporting the abuse to law enforcement,” the report said.

In a joint statement Thursday, the three Catholic bishops in Nebraska acknowledged “with sadness that so many innocent minors and young adults were harmed by Catholic clergy and other representatives of the Church.”

They asked for prayers for the victims and noted that the church has taken several steps in recent years to protect young people, prevent abuse and thoroughly investigate reports of misconduct.

“We apologize to the victims and their families for the pain, betrayal and suffering that never should have been experienced in the Church,” the statement said.

Peterson emphasized that such abuse was not just a problem of the Catholic Church but of other denominations and other organizations. He said he was not seeking to single out the Catholic Church and was surprised that the investigation’s hotline did not receive more reports about abuses by teachers and coaches.

“Absolutely no institution is entitled to place the preservation of its reputation before the protection of our most vulnerable,” Peterson said in the report.

The Catholic Church was cooperative in assembling the report, he said.

Peterson launched the Nebraska investigation in 2018 after a scathing grand jury report from a Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office investigation revealed abuse and cover-ups in six dioceses over 70 years.

After the Pennsylvania report, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office issued a press release asking people who had been sexually abused by clergy or other adults in authority to call a hotline. Peterson said they received 120 calls.

“All but one of those calls was associated with the Catholic Church,” he said.

Peterson asked Nebraska’s bishops in 2018 to voluntarily give him their records of sex abuse from the past 40 years.

The Omaha Archdiocese and the Dioceses of Lincoln and Grand Island began sending records. The Omaha and Lincoln bishops also published lists of priests and deacons against whom “substantiated allegations” of sexual abuse of a minor had been made.

Later, in early 2019, Peterson escalated his voluntary request to a demand and subpoenaed records from Catholic dioceses, churches and schools across the state. The bishops contended that they were already complying with the request, but more records were handed over in response to the subpoena.

The information in the investigation came primarily from the dioceses’ files and interviews with victims. Investigators in the Attorney General’s Office conducted the probe, with help from Lincoln police on Lincoln cases.

A number of survivors and relatives attended the press conference Thursday.

“It’s a good report, a fair report, and complete as it could be given the considerations of the statute of limitations,” said Jack Hosking, the father of a survivor. “Thank God for the effort they put across. It’s going to open some eyes.”

Stan Schulte of Lincoln, an abuse survivor, said current church officials should step down.

“If this were happening in the public school system, if principals knew about abuse by their teachers, that principal would be removed immediately,” he said.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the report showed that the Catholic Church’s secrecy had “successfully helped to cover up crimes and keep victims silent for so long that they have no shot at seeing justice through the criminal courts.” Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator for the national organization, echoed the call for statute of limitations changes.

Peterson urged vigilance and prompt reporting to law enforcement.

“Going forward, vigilance in protection will be the most important element to assure children are shielded from these violations in the future,” he wrote. “That vigilance includes the strongest commitment possible made by the church, its members, and the engagement of law enforcement as soon as possible.”