Jury Awards $ 800,000 for Abuse The Omaha Archdiocese Owes an Ex-Altar Boy $ 750,000 and His Mother $ 50,000

By Joseph Morton
Omaha World Herald
June 15, 2002

A jury awarded a total of $ 800,000 Friday to an Omaha woman and her son, a former altar boy abused by Daniel Herek.

The jury, voting 10-2, found that the Omaha Archdiocese should pay $ 750,000 to the victim of the former Omaha priest's abuse and $ 50,000 to his mother.

"I hope this is a message that will be sent out to the Catholic leadership, not only that they were wrong, but that any continued behavior of this kind could prove costly to them," attorney Harold Zabin said.

Zabin represented the former altar boy, now 23, and his mother in their lawsuits against the archdiocese.

The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said going to trial was the right decision. He said that while serious attempts were made to reach a settlement, the two sides had "obvious differences."

It was appropriate, he said, for a jury to sort out the facts and make a determination.

The archdiocese admitted just before the trial began that it had been negligent in its supervision of Herek, which left the jury to decide only how much the archdiocese should pay in damages.

After nearly two weeks of listening to evidence in the case, the jury began deliberations at 11:15 a.m. Thursday and delivered the verdict about 4:15 p.m. Friday.

Asked by reporters to explain how the jury arrived at the dollar figure, foreman David C. Dunn said none of the jurors would comment "out of respect for everybody in the case."

These were the first Herek-related lawsuits to go to a jury. Four other suits still are pending, and two others have been settled.

Zabin asked the jurors on Thursday to award a total of $ 4 million - $ 3 million to the young man and $ 1 million to his mother.

That, Zabin said, would cover a proposed long-term psychiatric treatment plan, as well as compensate the plaintiffs for many years of mental suffering.

William Johnson, attorney for the archdiocese, said during his closing arguments that an appropriate, not excessive, amount of damages should be paid. He mentioned possible amounts of $ 100,000 or $ 200,000.

Gutgsell, when asked Friday whether the archdiocese would appeal the award, said, "We considered it the right thing to do, to let the jury decide. We still consider it the right thing to do. We will deal with the decision as the decision."

The archdiocese said last summer that any court costs related to Herek's misconduct would be covered "without special collections, invasion of regular parish collections or the use of funds budgeted for the (archdiocese's) many programs and ministries." (4)

The church won't take up special collections or use its regular funds to pay the $ 800,000, Gutgsell said. The archdiocese has insurance that covers such issues, he said.

"Those monies intended for the regular work of the church will not be tapped," he said. "The work of the church must go on."

Zabin said the jury award was substantially more than the archdiocese had offered in settlement talks. He declined to specify what offers had been made.

He said the trial was stressful for the plaintiffs, and he blamed the archdiocese for the case going to trial.

"It's unfortunate that the Catholic Archdiocese never ever apologized, never asked for forgiveness, never were willing to make a reasonable offer of settlement," Zabin said.

Herek was convicted in 1998 of sexual assault on a child and manufacturing child pornography. Now at a state psychiatric facility, Herek was pastor at St. Richard Catholic Church in Omaha at the time of the assault.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.