Curtiss Handled Abuse Case in Montana

By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World Herald (Nebraska)
August 30, 1998

Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss has had experience in the difficult area of dealing with a priest accused of child molestation.

When Curtiss was bishop of the Diocese of Helena in western Montana in 1989, a former parishioner accused the Rev. Wilson Smart of sexual abuse more than a decade earlier. Smart eventually admitted molesting more than 30 boys from 1957 to 1978.

In the Rev. Daniel Herek's case, incidents of abuse allegedly started before Curtiss was archbishop and continued during his tenure. In Smart's case, the abuse began long before Curtiss was bishop, but came to light on his watch. Curtiss was criticized for his handling of the scandal and apologized for his mistakes.

Four of Smart's victims filed lawsuits against the diocese that were settled out of court. The settlements are confidential, but one of them was publicized when a copy was inadvertently included in public documents filed with a motion by a lawyer in the case. The document showed that the diocese paid the victim $ 1.7 million.

Curtiss declined to answer questions earlier this year about the Montana case.

In a letter to the people of the Helena Diocese on April 14, 1993, Curtiss said he examined the file on Smart after the initial accuser came forward in 1989. Smart's attraction to boys was known to the diocese in 1959, and he was sent away for counseling, Curtiss wrote. For reasons that were unclear, he said, "Father Smart was allowed to return to regular parish ministry, apparently without any safeguards in place."

In 1969, Smart again was sent away, this time for treatment for alcoholism. "It was assumed in the '60s that inappropriate behavior of any kind by a priest was the result of alcohol abuse," Curtiss wrote. He did not say whether files indicated any sexual abuse problem at that time.

In the late 1970s, after Curtiss had been named bishop of Helena, he sent Smart away again to be treated for alcoholism "without ever having examined his file and with no indication of any sexual problem," the bishop wrote.

"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 confessed to having removed from Smart's file two letters that documented the earlier problems.

"I never guessed that my actions would be construed later by the plaintiff's 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."

Curtiss also apologized to the families whose children were exposed to abuse by the priest. The bishop noted that the abuse continued unchecked because of the special trust Catholics place in priests and because of the reluctance to cause scandal.

"There has been a climate of silence on the part of priests and people," Curtiss wrote in the 1993 letter, "but there can be no more."


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