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Nebraska AG report details clergy abuse, and open questions on some bishops

Nebraska’s attorney general has released a report into clerical sexual abuse in the state’s three Catholic dioceses. 

The report, the result of more than three years of investigation, identified more than 250 victims and identified allegations of clerical sexual abuse against 57 clergy or diocesan employees. It also raises questions about the handling of allegations of clerical sexual misconduct by some of the state’s bishops, both past and present.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson presenting his report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, November 4, 2021. Credit: KETV


Attorney General Doug Peterson presented the report during a press conference Nov. 4, and spoke of both the practical findings of the investigation, and the emotional toll it exacted on victims who had come forward, and on his own staff.

“The failure of the Church to safeguard so many victims is gut-wrenching,” he said.

Peterson said that while his findings have not led to any new charges being filed, owing to the statute of limitations, he hoped the report would be a “feeble attempt to let [victims’] voices be heard.”

The investigation began in 2018 with the launch of a dedicated hotline for victims of historical instances of sexual abuse to come forward. That hotline received some 120 calls, the attorney general said. 

Peterson said that while it was not the intention of his office to focus exclusively on the state’s Catholic dioceses of Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island, all but one of the hotline calls related to the Catholic Church.

During his press conference, Peterson made reference to similar reports issued by attorneys general in other states, particularly in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Iowa, and said that patterns of both abuse by clergy and failure to act by dioceses were consistent across the reports.

Nearly every case involved a pattern of “grooming behavior,” in which the abuser attempted to isolate the victim and build a relationship of trust and dependence through gift-giving and cultivating emotional dependence, Peterson said, while noting the grooming behavior often also extended to the victims’ families as well.

During the press conference Thursday, the attorney general expressed repeated frustration with historical patterns of behavior on the part of diocesan officials, and especially “bishops and archbishops” who were made aware of allegations of abusive behavior and “did little or nothing” to act on the information. In many cases, he said, bishops were alerted to abusive clergy and, instead of informing law enforcement, sent offending priests for therapy or counseling before returning them to ministry in a new assignment.

The 174-page report includes allegations dating back decades, including to the 1930s. The vast majority of the alleged victims identified are male — 236 out of 258 total — and the most common ages at which they were abused was between 11-15.

Nearly 100 of the 258 alleged victims identified by the attorney general’s office were reportedly abused by one of two priests: Daniel Herek and Leonard Kalin. 

Daniel Herek was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Omaha in 1971. He was first arrested in 1998, after a parish cleaner discovered obscene material in the rectory of his parish showing naked boys in the sanctuary of the church building. Herek was subsequently jailed for making child pornography. 

The AG’s report found evidence in archdiocesan files indicating that, at the time of his arrest, the archdiocese had already received at least six complaints against Herek, the first dating back to the 1970s, concerning as many as 43 possible victims - of whom the AG’s office say 26 could be substantiated. After serving time in jail, and being subsequently rearrested for later public obscenity, Herek was laicized in 2006.

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Msgr. Leonard Kalin served as the vocations director at the Newman Center attached to the University of Nebraska in the Diocese of Lincoln from 1970-1998. Kalin was accused by several college-aged undergraduates and seminarians of instances of grooming, sexual harassment and assault, and of abusing his position of spiritual authority to subject young men to his advances. 

The AG’s inspection of personnel files from the Diocese of Lincoln found evidence of a meeting in 1998 between the diocese’s then-bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz, during which the bishop asked Kalin to “list all sexual encounters he has had.” In response, Kalin listed the names of 50 young men and detailed instances as recently as the previous month.

According to the report’s findings, Bruskewitz issued a “canonical warning” to Kalin, and instructed him not to be alone with men under 40. The report says that a note in diocesan files indicated that Kalin “did not strictly follow” this instruction. Kalin died in 2008. 

While the details of the attorney general’s report are likely to prompt renewed scandal and suffering among American Catholics, especially in Nebraska, Peterson went out of his way on Thursday to underline that Church reforms undertaken in the early 2000s appeared to have had a dramatic impact on instances of abuse.

The “vast majority” of cases of abuse were prior to the adoption of the Dallas Charter by the U.S. bishops in 2002, Peterson said, and he noted that the prior absence of “appropriate, necessary policies and processes” had been largely addressed by the bishops at that time.

The majority of reported instances of abuse concern the 1970s-90s, according to the report, with a sharp fall in the number of instances after 2000. At the same time, the number of new reports of abuse from previous decades rose in the 2000s, indicating that victims of historical sexual abuse were coming forward. 

On Thursday, Peterson noted that the vast majority of the 57 clergy identified in the report had already been named by the dioceses themselves in recent years and that “just a few” of the reports subjects concerned new allegations of abuse.

“From everything I have seen,” he said, “the Dallas Charter made a big impact.”

Peterson also used his press conference on Thursday to emphasize, repeatedly, that although the focus of his office’s report was on the Catholic dioceses of the state, there was no conclusion on his part that sexual abuse was problem unique to the Catholic Church. 

“I know — we know — this is not a problem limited to the Catholic Church,” he said. “It is not as if any denomination has come out with a pure record on this.”

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Although the attorney general was broadly positive about the U.S. bishops’ efforts at reform in the early 2000s, the report raises questions about the handling of a recent set of allegations in the Archdiocese of Omaha, which has been led by Archbishop George Lucas since 2009.

In 2013, the Archdiocese of Omaha received an allegation that a priest serving in the archdiocese, Fr.  Francis Nigli, sexually assaulted an 18-year-old several times during trips out of the diocese that year. The report says the allegations were reported to law enforcement.

The attorney general’s report also alleges that in 2011 Nigli had kissed the same teenager on the lips, when he was a minor, but it is not clear when the archdiocese received that information, or if it included that allegation in its 2013 report to police. In either case, no criminal charges were filed. 

While the priest was removed from ministry for a period of time, he was in 2015 assigned to an Omaha parish. 

Despite serial complaints that the priest seemed to be grooming seminarians and violating boundaries with minors, he remained in ministry, but was directed not to have one-on-one contacts with young adult males. Despite that direction, Nigli is alleged to have fondled and forcibly kissed a 21-year-old male in 2018, after which he was removed from ministry and left the diocese.   

It is not clear that the canon law in force in 2013 would have required Lucas to initiate a canonical proceeding against the priest, especially since the attorney general’s report does not make clear when the diocese learned that the priest allegedly kissed a minor. But that the priest remained in ministry after allegedly sexually assaulting an adult, and allegedly committed a similar violation years later, after several warnings, is sure to raise questions about Lucas’ decisions in the case. 

The report also raises the prospect that the bishop emeritus of Lincoln, Fabian Bruskewitz, could face a Vatican inquiry, including the possibility of a Vos estis lux mundi investigation, for allegations which pertain to his time in leadership of the Lincoln diocese.

Under Bruskewitz’ leadership, the Lincoln diocese declined to participate in annual external audits of its compliance with child protection policies and best practices. While the diocese participated in the inaugural round of audits, launched in 2002 as part of a USCCB response to emerging sexual abuse scandals, Bruskewitz subsequently said in 2003 that the diocese would not continue to participate; it resumed participation only after the installation of Bishop James Conley as Bruskewitz’ successor.

While he was in office Bruskewitz defended his decision against criticism by insisting that the diocese was in “full compliance” with canon and civil law. But the attorney general’s report identifies instances which suggest otherwise. 

The diocese received in 2003 a report that one priest, Fr. John Copenhaver, had inappropriately touched a teenage boy in the early 1990s; the priest, who had also been accused in 2001 of inappropriate behavior with a minor, remained in ministry, and the attorney general’s report found no evidence of either a canonical or civil process. The next year, when the priest was accused of making sexual advances toward a young adult, he was ordered into counseling; but he remained in ministry until Bruskewitz directed he retire in 2012.

In 1997, the report says the Lincoln diocese received a report about another priest, Fr. James Benton, who was accused of sexually touching a minor in the 1980s. The attorney general’s report says that Bruskewitz took no action, even when the alleged victim spoke with him directly in 2002. After the 1997 report, the priest “was given assignments at four other parishes, as well as a non-parish assignment at a retreat house,” the attorney general said, until another alleged victim raised an allegation in 2017. That victim alleged he was sexually assaulted in 2002, five years after the diocese first received allegations against the priest. 

Another priest in the diocese, Fr. Thomas Dunavan, was accused in 2001 of sexually groping an 18-year-old female. The diocese did not initiate any response, but two weeks after the initial allegation, the alleged victim signed a statement recanting her charge. She later told police that she had been coerced into recanting, and was in fact sexually assaulted. 


Vos estis lux mundi calls for Vatican investigations into the possibility of “actions or omissions intended to...avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations” of alleged sexual abuse. 

While portions of the motu proprio, issued in 2019 by Pope Francis, appear to enumerate new canonical crimes for which bishops can be held accountable, other parts of the document redefine or clarify the provisions of existing law, including on negligence and abuse of office by a bishop, and delineate the investigative procedure for examining allegations.

Vos estis has been retroactively applied to investigate several U.S. bishops in relation to allegations of previous, even historical misconduct. 

Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston was directed by the pope to resign earlier this year after a Vos estis investigation into his handling of allegations of misconduct dating back to 2011 — including the allegation that he coerced an abuse victim to recant his claim. Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas Dimarzio was also investigated under the terms of the motu proprio, following allegations of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s — that investigation concluded that the allegations lacked even the semblance of truth.

Barring the unusual step of ordering an investigation against either Lucas or Bruskewitz in direct response to the attorney general’s report, it is likely that the Vatican would only consider the suitability of applying Vos estis if a new complaint is made to Church officials by someone connected to the relevant cases, though either bishop could self-refer themselves to Rome in the light of the report.

The report also investigated Nebraska’s third diocese, the see of Grand Island. While the attorney general investigated 13 “files from the diocese,” but found that only one allegation, of a priest convicted of misdemeanor public indecency in 2006, could be substantiated. 

The Pillar’s editor JD Flynn was employed by the Diocese of Lincoln from 2013 until 2017. To ensure impartiality in The Pillar’s reporting, he has recused himself from The Pillar’s coverage of the Diocese of Lincoln.

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