Priest Said to Be Remorseful Herek Pleads No Contest to Sex Charges

By Angie Brunkow, Julia McCord
Omaha World Herald
August 29, 1998

The Rev. Daniel Herek was feeling remorse and pain Friday as he entered no-contest pleas to charges that he sexually assaulted a boy in his parish and made child pornography, his attorney said.

"I've been doing this for 22 years, and I haven't met a person who feels worse than him," said Steven Lefler, the priest's attorney. "He takes these allegations very seriously, and it's having a tremendous impact on his psychological state.

"This is eating him away to the point it's killing him."

Lefler declined to say whether Herek admits guilt.

He said Herek felt remorse for any negative impact that his case has had on the Catholic Church and on the young man whom prosecutors have identified as the sexual-assault victim.

Herek also has been pained, the lawyer said, because the charges "distort his record as a priest and all the good things he has done." Herek has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Omaha for more than 25 years.

Douglas County District Judge Stephen Davis accepted the no-contest pleas and found Herek guilty of the two felonies. He will be sentenced in about 10 to 12 weeks, after the probation office completes an investigation, which probably will include an interview with Herek.

The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the archdiocese, said he would have no comment until hearing from Herek or his attorney. Gutgsell said neither Archbishop Elden Curtiss nor retired Archbishop Daniel Sheehan would be making statements.

Gutgsell said Herek's conviction will not automatically disqualify him from the priesthood.

"There is nothing that a priest can do that, in and of itself, makes him stop being a priest," Gutgsell said.

The Rev. Ken Vavrina, who was appointed pastor of Herek's former church, St. Richard Catholic Church at 4320 Fort St., in June, and several parish leaders declined to comment.

Authorities say Herek, 53, fondled a 14-year-old boy from the St. Richard parish, where Herek was pastor for five years. Prosecutor Leigh Ann Retelsdorf declined to disclose other details about the assault.

The pornography charge stems from a videotape and two photographs of naked boys found by a cleaning woman in the St. Richard rectory in May 1997.

In court Friday, Herek, wearing a plain blue suit and no tie, spoke softly as he entered his pleas and answered questions from the judge. He told Davis that he was taking medication for anxiety, depression and high cholesterol.

He told the judge that he had been treated for an addiction at the Eppley Care Center in Omaha in 1989 and at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., from May 1997 until last February. The institute is a treatment center that specializes in treating members of the clergy with sexual disorders.

A short, slight man with graying blond hair, Herek nodded his head during the hearing or gave simple, respectful answers to the judge's questions. He spoke with attorneys and then left the courthouse quickly to avoid reporters.

Herek, who is out of jail on the condition that he have no contact with the victim, is officially on leave from the archdiocese. He has been living in Omaha in his late mother's house since his return from the Maryland treatment center, Gutgsell said.

The archdiocese has provided Herek with financial support from its disability fund, Gutgsell said.

After the hearing, Lefler said Herek entered the no-contest pleas in part because he did not want to put the young man through the pain of a trial. Herek also has to be conscious of possible civil litigation in entering a plea, Lefler said.

"I don't know if there's going to be a civil lawsuit or not, but in the event that there is a civil lawsuit, a no-contest plea could not be used against Father Herek," Lefler said.

Lefler said he could not comment about whether Herek admits guilt because of the pending sentence.

Retelsdorf said she was satisfied with the pleas, which Herek made to the original charges of sexual assault on a child and manufacturing and possession of child pornography.

"In these types of cases, there's always something to be said for a perpetrator who doesn't push children into testifying in court," Retelsdorf said. "In my position I'm always really glad to see when we don't have to try these kinds of cases and put those kids through additional victimization."

The charge of sexual assault on a child requires a victim 14 years and younger and an offender 19 years and older. For first-time offenders, it is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The charge of manufacturing child pornography carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Omaha Police Officer Steven Henthorn, the main police investigator, said Friday that the case against Herek remains open.

"It's not something we're going to close," he said. "There are other potential victims."

Retelsdorf said: "We're pretty satisfied at this point with the investigation where it sits. However, an investigation like that is always open to some degree."

Retelsdorf said some of the other victims were involved in incidents that happened too long ago to prosecute.

In an affidavit filed to obtain a search warrant last May, police wrote that the archdiocese had learned in its investigation that Herek "has singled out altar boys at parishes he has served at as favorites. These altar boys have been taken on overnight trips and received special attention."

Herek served at a number of Omaha parishes as well as in the Nebraska communities of Coleridge, Belden and Beemer.

News of the conviction was encouraging to Ruth Ann Barth, a former development officer for the St. Richard school and the aunt of the cleaning woman who found the photographs and videotape in the rectory.

"I have a very strong desire to have justice truly served, " she said. "This is a step toward that."

Barth reported incidents of questionable conduct by Herek to top church officials in early 1996 and in April 1997, before the photographs and videotapes were found. She has publicly criticized the church's handling of the matter.

Barth said she hopes the conviction sends the message that people need to be watchful and unafraid to speak out.

"I want people to look at this and understand that it's OK to come forward," she said. "It's OK to be vocal and to pursue a situation you think is inappropriate or a threat to a child."

Others have said that they reported concerns about Herek's behavior to the church in the past but that no action was taken.

Gutgsell has said that the archdiocese heard concerns about Herek but that no reports raised alarm until the pornographic videotape was found in the St. Richard rectory in May 1997.

The cleaning woman, Julie Hansen, found two photos of nude, adolescent boys and a video labeled "Billy Jack" that contained a number of brief scenes involving naked boys at a church and the St. Richard rectory.

Hansen recognized the voice of the man who was running the video recorder as Herek's.

She turned the photos and video over to Gutgsell, who met with Herek. A few days later, Herek was sent to St. Luke Institute.

Hansen declined to comment Friday.

The archdiocese began an investigation after receiving the photos and videotape, and, about two weeks later, Gutgsell called police.

Herek remained at the institute from May 1997 until last February, when attorneys and authorities arranged for his return to face charges.

When asked whether she was satisfied with the archdiocese's cooperation during the investigation of Herek, Retelsdorf said: "I'm satisfied with the conclusion of this case."

Herek's status with the archdiocese remains unsettled.

Priests can be relieved of their duties. Under a lengthy and detailed process called "laicization," a priest can appeal directly to the pope for dispensation from his priestly duties and obligations, Gutgsell said.

In a situation of "utmost seriousness," Gutgsell said, a bishop can put a priest on trial.

Under canon law the bishop would appoint a three-member panel to collect evidence and make a recommendation. The bishop could dismiss the priest from his duties if warranted, Gutgsell said.


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