Other Lives Unravel In Priest's Sex Case

By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World Herald
February 21, 1998

The moment she found the tape, Julie Hansen felt sick, even before she viewed it.

About a year earlier, while cleaning the rectory at St. Richard Catholic Church for the Rev. Daniel Herek, Hansen had seen two photographs of a nude adolescent boy. She found it strange that the priest would have the pictures but did not immediately suspect any misconduct.

Hansen, after all, was a longtime admirer of Herek's. He was the priest who had led her into the Catholic Church. At the very moment she was cleaning the rectory, her daughter and husband were away with Herek at an overnight confirmation retreat.

The videotape, sitting in a dresser drawer and labeled "Billy Jack" in Herek's handwriting, set off an alarm. "I just knew that wasn't what was on it," Hansen said. "It was like a sick feeling I had. I don't know if you'd call it a woman's intuition."

Hansen's intuitive discovery on April 5, 1997, triggered an investigation that earlier this month resulted in felony charges against the 52-year-old Omaha priest, now on leave from his duties as pastor at St. Richard, 4320 Fort St.

Herek pleaded not guilty Feb. 13 to charges of sexual assault on a child and manufacturing and possessing child pornography. Defense attorney Steven Lefler said Herek, who has been a priest in the archdiocese for 25 years, including five at St. Richard, would not agree to an interview for this story.

The discovery of the tape caused great anguish for Hansen and her aunt, Ruth Ann Barth, who eventually took the tape and turned it over to officials of the Omaha Archdiocese. One woman lost her job with the church, and the other eventually resigned. Both said the incident and the church's response to it have strained their ties to the Catholic Church.

"I get very angry when I go to Mass," said Barth, former development director for St. Richard School, who has not attended Mass since October. "I hope I will find my way back there."

Hansen, fighting back tears frequently during an interview, said, "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."

Last April, as she held the tape, Hansen considered Herek more as a shepherd than as a suspect. When he was at St. Peter Church in Omaha in 1981, he had baptized and confirmed her. She had run the day-care center at St. Ann when he was pastor there from 1989 to 1992. At St. Richard she served communion under Herek and cleaned the rectory.

"My whole family became Catholic because of him," said Hansen, 37. "What I thought of him was, 'Here's this priest, this wonderful man. It's so great how he takes those kids in and takes them under his wing.'"

Herek's recent conduct had bothered her but had not raised suspicions until she saw the tape. With a sense of dread, Hansen inserted the tape into Herek's VCR. After some static and a brief television news report, the tape showed a scene in the altar area of a church that Hansen did not recognize, but it wasn't St. Richard. One boy was naked, too young for pubic hair. Another boy was wearing clothes. They were "wrestling and giggling," Hansen said.

Police Officer Steven Henthorn, whose sworn affidavit confirmed Hansen's description of the scenes on the tape, gave a more blunt description of the boys' actions: "The video also showed the young adolescents lying on the floor simulating sexual intercourse."

Barth, who later saw the video, agreed that the actions could amount to simulated intercourse. She wouldn't state it that strongly, she said, but there were clear "sexual undertones."

Barth and Hansen did not recognize the boys in the first scene, but Henthorn said in an interview that investigators have identified them and the church. He would not say what church it was.

The man holding the camera never appeared in the video, but Hansen recognized an off-camera voice as Herek's. The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, who turned the video and photographs over to police, also recognized the voice as Herek's.

So did Barth. "It's a distinctive voice," she said. "You can't mistake his voice."

In the scene on the video, a bell rang from the sacristy, which was too dark to see a third boy clearly, but the camera shifted toward him, Hansen said. He was putting his pants on. Hansen said the boy laughed and a voice asked, "What did you do with my underwear?"

One of the boys, addressing the cameraman, said he was probably videotaping. No, the off-camera voice assured them, the camera was off. The camera was on, zooming in on the genitals and buttocks of the youths as they frolicked and laughed.

Hansen recognized the location of the next scene. It was a room she had cleaned many times, the sitting room in the rectory.

At the direction of the same off-screen voice, a naked teen-ager posed, raising his hands above his head, flexing muscles.

"You can hear Father talking in the background," Hansen said. "He's talking very seductively - 'ooh, ahh, perfect, oh yeah, just like that, oh, great!' It was like an obscene phone call."

Again, the camera zoomed in repeatedly on the boy's genitals and buttocks.

The youth followed instructions "like a robot," Hansen said. "He had a totally straight face."

This youth was recognizable. He was identified in Henthorn's affidavit as a young man from the parish who is now 18. Hansen and Barth said that judging from his maturity, the scene had been shot fairly recently.

The youth declined to be interviewed for this story.

The scenes were short. Hansen said they lasted a few minutes at the most. Barth estimated the first scene at just 30 seconds.

Hansen was stunned when the tape finished. "There's no Father touching them or anything like that. But, God - on the altar?" Hansen paused. "In my mind, that's not right. I was scared."

Unsure what to do, Hansen returned the tape to its drawer. "I put it back, and I just freaked."

She told her therapist, who urged Hansen to bring her the tape. Hansen couldn't bring herself to do that, but couldn't forget what she had seen. On May 10, again alone in the rectory, she viewed the tape again. "I watched it twice just to make sure I saw what I saw correctly."

This time, Hansen knew she had to do something. She went to confession with another priest. He told her he could not repeat what she told him in the confessional, but that he would act if she told the story again in his office. She couldn't bear to do that, she said. The priest gave her Gutgsell's name and suggested she contact him.

The priest told her that her penance for her silence "was this heavy heart that I had carried for so long around with me" and to pray for someone sick in the parish.

She didn't call Gutgsell. "I think I was so scared I didn't know what to do."

That evening, Hansen was scheduled to serve Communion at Saturday night Mass. But, she said, "I could not stand on that altar with him and serve Communion."

Nearly hysterical, she contacted Barth, who also served Communion, and asked if she would go in her place. Barth balked, but kept asking why Hansen didn't want to serve. Finally, Hansen told her.

Barth, who said she had been growing increasingly concerned with Herek's behavior around boys in the parish, told Hansen she would take care of it. She told Gutgsell and Monsignor John Flynn, the archdiocese's development director, who died Sept. 15.

On May 13, Barth said, Gutgsell authorized her to seize the tape from the rectory, which is archdiocesan property. Gutgsell does not remember it that way, but confirmed that he asked Barth to bring the tape to him.

Barth conferred with another parish employee, who knew the elaborate system of keys and codes required to gain entrance to the rectory and various rooms. They concocted a plan that Barth described as "cloak and dagger." The best time to take the tape, they decided, was when Herek was in the church celebrating Mass on Wednesday morning, May 14. Weekday Masses last about 20 minutes.

When Herek entered the church, Barth called the other employee on a cellular phone and she went into the rectory to fetch the tape and photographs. Barth delivered them to Gutgsell.

That afternoon, Gutgsell and Archbishop Elden Curtiss met with the priest. Herek, who earlier had been treated for alcoholism, was sent May 15 to St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Silver Spring, Md., that specializes in treating clergy with sexual disorders.

Barth remained a confidant of the priest's. She said he would call, sobbing and asking her to send him items he had left behind, including his checkbook and a teddy bear. She reported all the calls to Gutgsell, she said, and eventually stopped taking his calls. Herek stopped calling Barth when the chancellor started returning his calls when he left messages for her, she said.

Gutgsell continued investigating and called police May 28, two weeks after the meeting with Herek.

The parish was told that Herek was on leave being treated for "burnout." Parents in the parish were not informed about the investigation until after news reports in July had revealed the real reason for his absence. He returned to Omaha Feb. 12 and was charged the next day. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, free without bond.

Hansen said she has been tortured by doubts about her own actions - whether she should have revealed her discovery of the tape sooner, whether she should have spoken out during the months before the investigation of Herek became known publicly. She doesn't have doubts about whether she should have viewed the tape.

"If anybody wants to know if I was invading his privacy, that's not the case at all," she said.

She is more thorough than other cleaning services, Hansen said, demonstrating with gestures as she spoke. "I pick up things. I pull out drawers. I dust the tops."

Herek had told her he would leave the door to a room closed if she didn't need to clean it, and it wasn't uncommon for him to do so. He gave her the key and code to clean when he wasn't around.

One day in 1996, when she was cleaning his bedroom, she pulled out the drawer on his nightstand to dust the rim, as was her routine. In the drawer, she saw two snapshots of a youthful naked male. He was wearing an Indian mask and standing by a campfire in the dark.

"I don't know what I thought. It just didn't connect," Hansen said. "Father was really into Indian things." Maybe this was some sort of ceremony. Besides, she said, "it looked like a man." She later learned the youth was in his teens.

After finding the photos, she continued cleaning the rectory, usually on Saturdays, sometimes on weeknights after working at her sister's day-care center.

Every Saturday, the rectory would fill up with boys coming to visit Herek and play at the rectory. "The boys were always there," Hansen said. "There were always lots and lots of kids - always boys, though. There were never a lot of girls around."

The presence of children at the rectory didn't surprise Hansen. Ever since she had known Herek, he had been popular with young people, taking them on retreats and camping trips, presenting plays. "I never had any reason to believe he was doing anything wrong with these kids."

When Pope John Paul II first said that priests could allow girls to serve at Mass, Herek let them serve at his Masses.

He didn't have a set schedule, with two servers for each Mass, as many churches do. Herek would be assisted by a flock of children. "No matter who showed up," Hansen said, "they'd get to serve." Her brother and his friends had served at Mass for Herek.

It was Herek's Mass that drew Hansen into the church as a troubled teen-ager. Reared in the Congregational Church, she was attracted to the ceremony of the Catholic Mass. "There was just something there that I wanted. There was just a sense of peace."

Her admiration for Herek grew as she took classes from him to join the church. "He'd always listen to you."

A sister of Hansen's married a Catholic and also joined the church. Eventually the whole family followed. Hansen's involvement wasn't a casual matter of affiliation, but a matter of personal faith. She worked with children in the church, served Communion and sent her daughter to Catholic schools.

Barth, her aunt, also converted to Catholicism, joining the church in 1993 and becoming development director at St. Richard the next year.

"I love the tradition of the Catholic Church," Barth said. "Or at least I thought I did."

She accompanied Herek on a tour of Israel that he led and was impressed with his knowledge of Biblical times, his ability to place the sites they saw in the context of familiar scriptures and stories.

She initially thought Herek "was a wonderful teacher with the children."

That, she fears, "gave him the power to do what he did - because they came to respect him so much."

Before Hansen found the video, Barth already was having concerns about whether the priest behaved appropriately around the children, who always seemed to gather at the rectory.

The children in whom Herek took the most interest were white boys (the north Omaha parish is mostly white, but the school's children are mostly black) and "mostly children from broken homes," Barth said. Most were in seventh and eighth grades, she said.

Hansen found the boys gathering at the St. Richard rectory to be interesting, but not troubling. The boys had a hierarchy of sorts, based on how many Masses they had served. Pins and colors of clothing designated a boy's rank.

Through her years with Herek, Hansen said, she didn't notice a pattern that disturbs her now: The children he spent so much time with were completely obedient to the priest. "He didn't like any of the kids that really talked back," she said. "When I thought back, it was, like, there were so many signs."

The rectory was full of items to entertain the boys - comic books, a telescope, videos, Indian items. Throughout the rectory, videos lined the shelves, mostly taped from television by Herek. He would leave the TV Guide around, with listings circled for movies he wanted to tape. "This guy was obsessed with videos," Hansen said.

Hansen is unsure why she felt intuitively that something was wrong with the tape in his dresser drawer. Lately, she said, Herek had been acting different. Though he had said he was sober, she would find empty liquor bottles around. He was cranky about efforts to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest. His personality seemed to change, Hansen said.

"I sort of started to feel like something wasn't right," she said. "I'd be cleaning and I'd turn around and he'd be behind me."

The investigation and arrest of Herek, and Hansen's role in it, have caused division even in Hansen's own family. "This has caused me a lot of heartache." She lost her job cleaning the rectory. She had a long viral illness and lost her day-care job as well.

Both she and her aunt are bitter about what they said was Gutgsell's insistence that they keep silent about the matter while it was being investigated. They think the archdiocese should have told at least parents in the parish about the possible danger their children had faced, rather than letting them learn through news reports.

"Every day of my life," Barth said, "I saw people that I loved, and I wasn't able to tell them." In October she asked for a leave of absence. She later resigned without returning to the school.

At a parish meeting last summer, Gutgsell apologized for not informing parents of the investigation sooner. In interviews this week, he said archdiocesan officials had to weigh competing concerns - protection of the children, protection of Herek from unwarranted damage to his reputation if he was innocent, respect for the continuing police investigation.

Both women said their love of the church they chose has been shaken.

"I made a promise to God that I will raise my child to be a Catholic," Hansen said, sobbing. "I've raised her to believe all these things about the church. And now it's like I don't even want to be a Catholic."


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