Sexual Abuse Alleged; Ex-Omahan Removed

By Stephen Buttry
Omaha World Herald
June 16, 2002

The Archdiocese of Miami has removed the Rev. Anthony Petrusic, a prominent former Omaha priest, from his ministry because of allegations raised in Omaha.

"His faculties were revoked in April," said Mary Ross Agosta, communication director for the Miami Archdiocese.

Petrusic, 71, is listed in the Omaha Archdiocese directory as retired and living in Hollywood, Fla. He helped with Mass and other duties at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Sunrise, Fla., Agosta said.

The Rev. Michael Gutgsell, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, said he suggested that Miami remove Petrusic from the ministry after learning in an interview that a man had told The World-Herald that Petrusic had sexually abused him when he was a teen-ager.

Willet Mather, a Colorado man who grew up in Omaha under another name, told the newspaper in an interview that Petrusic molested him in 1977 on a visit to the priest's lake cabin. He said he told the archdiocese about it in the 1980s.

The World-Herald has learned that a second man has also told the Omaha Archdiocese that he was molested by Petrusic about the same time as Mather.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss has declined all recent requests for interviews.

Gutgsell said the archdiocese had no records of sexual abuse complaints against Petrusic.

He pointed out that Petrusic has not been in the Omaha Archdiocese since 1990, before Curtiss became archbishop in 1993 and Gutgsell became chancellor in 1994.

Petrusic has been retired since the mid-1990s. Priests normally stay in the full-time ministry until age 70. Gutgsell said he thought Petrusic retired early because of his health.

Petrusic, who was pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in south Omaha for 19 years, did not respond to telephone messages left at his Florida home or to a letter requesting an interview. A man who answered the door at his home last week said that Petrusic was out of town.

The Omaha Archdiocese policy on sexual abuse says a priest will be suspended from ministerial duties if he "admits to, does not contest or is found guilty of an incident of sexual misconduct."

Mather, now 40, has legally changed his name since growing up in Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. He said in the interview that he told an archdiocesan official in the 1980s about being abused.

"I was under the impression that Petrusic had been sent somewhere where he wouldn't have priestly duties," Mather said.

After Mather says he told the archdiocese, Petrusic became pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann in northwest Omaha for two years.

He is the third Omaha Archdiocese priest removed from his ministry this year. The Rev. Robert Allgaier, who was associate pastor of St. Gerald Parish in Omaha, faces a misdemeanor charge of attempting to possess child pornography when he was at Sacred Heart-St. Mary Catholic Church in Norfolk.

The Rev. Thomas Sellentin was removed April 7 as pastor of St. Charles Parish in North Bend and St. Leo Parish in Snyder. In announcing Sellentin's removal, Gutgsell said the priest had sexually abused boys at four parishes during the 1960s and 1970s.

In two lawsuits involving a fourth priest, Daniel Herek, the archdiocese admitted it did not supervise that priest closely enough while he was at St. Richard Parish from 1992 to 1997. A federal jury on Friday awarded a total of $ 800,000 to an Omaha woman and her son, a former altar boy. Herek went to prison for sexually abusing the boy.

Petrusic spent more than 30 years in Omaha and was prominent locally in politics and nationally in the church. He is the author of a series of pocket-sized prayer books.

The priest left in 1990 to become president of the Croatian Catholic Union of the United States and Canada, based in Hobart, Ind. As president of the group, Petrusic visited Croatia and raised money in the United States to assist Croatian refugees.

Former Sen. J.J. Exon was among his golfing partners. Petrusic spoke at the ceremony when Robert Cunningham was sworn in as mayor in 1976. After the priest suffered a heart attack in 1980, Sen. Edward Zorinsky, a fishing and hunting companion, was among his hospital visitors.

When then-Mayor Mike Boyle stirred a controversy in 1986 by giving out 59 free passes to all city golf courses and other recreational facilities, Petrusic was one of the few clergy recipients.

Petrusic served on the first board of Metropolitan Community College and was instrumental in locating the major campus in south Omaha. He also served on the Omaha Public Library Board and the Board of Regents of the College of St. Mary.

Mather, the former Omaha man, said Petrusic invited him to the priest's cabin on Lake Wa-con-da, south of Plattsmouth, frequently in the summers of 1976 and 1977. He said he had known the priest since childhood.

During the visits to the cabin, Mather said, he would go fishing or swimming with the priest. Petrusic frequently would photograph the teen-ager when he was naked, hopping out of the shower or changing his swimsuit, Mather said.

At the time, he thought the photography was innocent clowning around. "There was no indication to me that they were sexual," Mather said. "No poses, nothing erotic."

When the youth and the priest were changing after a swim, Petrusic also would jump on his back for piggyback rides, Mather said. Again, he did not suspect sexual intent. "There was no sign of arousal. It just seemed like boys being boys."

In November or December of 1977, Mather said, Petrusic invited him to the cabin for a rare visit after the summer season.

The youth had a new girlfriend and discussed with the priest his sexual interest in her, telling him about their necking and petting and asking what was OK for young couples to do.

As the teen-ager talked, Mather said, Petrusic "started to breathe a little bit hard" and the youth said he noticed a change in the priest's voice. "He reached inside my overalls and tried to reach inside my underwear."

The youth pulled away.

That was the end of the incident, and the end of their friendship, Mather said. Petrusic violated a "position of trust."

When the teen-ager told another youth in the parish, Mather said, that boy said Petrusic had also molested him on an overnight stay at the cabin. The teenagers confronted Petrusic about the abuse, but he denied it, Mather said.

"After that discussion, I had no further contact with him," Mather said.

Worried about the priest's access to other youths, Mather visited the archdiocese office in the mid-1980s to tell someone what happened. He recalls meeting with "a high-ranking priest" but not Archbishop Daniel Sheehan.

After Mather described the abuse, the priest "thanked me, and I didn't hear back from him."

Mather says he called later to find out what had happened and was told Petrusic had been transferred out of the country.

Only in a recent interview did Mather learn that after his visit to the archdiocese office, Petrusic had served as pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann.

While the incident with Petrusic was upsetting, it did not cause psychological problems, Mather said.

Mather isn't seeking damages from the archdiocese, he said. "I'm not suing anybody."

But he wants former parishioners to know about the abuse in case his story would help someone else who may have been abused.

Petrusic, a native of Johnstown, Pa., was ordained May 11, 1957. He started his priesthood as assistant pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul, a parish founded by Croatian immigrants.

Petrusic served as director of guidance and religion at now-defunct Ryan High School while working on a master's degree in educational administration at Creighton University. Also in the 1960s, he was director of religious vocations and assistant superintendent of schools for the archdiocese and chaplain at the now-defunct St. Catherine Hospital and Notre Dame Convent.

In 1969, Sheehan appointed Petrusic pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul.


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