Omaha Archdiocese Admits Negligence in Priest Abuse Case

By Phil Rooney
Associated Press
May 31, 2002

Omaha, Neb. (AP) -- Jury selection for a civil trial against the Omaha Roman Catholic Archdiocese was to resume Friday, a day after the archdiocese admitted that negligent supervision of a priest contributed to his sexually abusing a 14-year-old altar boy in the 1990s.

As a result of the admission, two civil lawsuits against the archdiocese scheduled for trial next week will decide only damages, not whether the church was responsible, District Judge Robert Burkhard said.

The lawsuits were filed by the former altar boy and his mother in 1998 and 1999, before this year's nationwide eruption of sex abuse accusations against priests.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Harold Zabin, said he planned to seek at least $1 million in damages from the archdiocese.

Zabin was asked if a settlement might be reached before the trial begins.

''It's up to them,'' he replied, gesturing to archdiocese attorneys, who declined to comment.

The priest in the case, the Rev. Daniel Herek, was convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting the boy, now 20, and manufacturing child pornography while he was pastor at St. Richard's Catholic Church from June 1992 to May 1997.

Herek served 2 1/2 years in prison before being released to a state facility for mental health treatment.

The lawsuits claimed the archdiocese knew Herek posed a danger to children but did nothing to protect parishioners.

Previously, archdiocese officials had said they had received no complaints about Herek that raised alarm or warranted removing him from contact with children.

The chancellor of the archdiocese, the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, said Herek's conviction played a part in the decision to admit negligence.

''Father Herek was convicted of a criminal charge with this specific individual,'' Gutgsell said. ''As that point, basic liability has been admitted.''

The admission applies only to Herek in this trial, Gutgsell said.

A few documents were considered key to the plaintiffs' case, including indications that an archdiocese official discouraged someone from pursuing criminal charges against Herek around 1980. The official in question has denied doing so.

The plaintiffs also have evidence that parishioners repeatedly complained about Herek to church officials over the years on a variety of problems, including substance abuse and unsupervised overnight trips with altar boys.

Herek was ordained in 1971. He served in parishes in the archdiocese until his removal from St. Richard's in 1997.

Other former altar boys have filed lawsuits against the archdiocese regarding Herek. Two lawsuits have been settled out of court; four others are scheduled for trial later this year.

The lawsuits against Herek reached trial as the archdiocese faces criticism for its handling of another priest, who is accused of viewing child pornography over the Internet while serving a parish in Norfolk.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss transferred the Rev. Robert Allgaier to a parish in Ralston after Allgaier admitted repeatedly viewing child pornography. Curtiss did not tell authorities, who have charged Allgaier with attempted possession of child pornography.

Last month, Curtiss dismissed and granted early retirement to a priest accused of sexually abusing boys more than 30 years ago. The archdiocese said accusations against the Rev. Thomas Sellentin, 62, had come recently from four Nebraska parishes.


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