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Nebraska AG: None of state’s 258 Catholic church abuse cases can be prosecuted

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 8:10 AM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy got a gut punch Thursday morning when Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson announced the results of a three-year investigation: Due to the statute of limitations, only one of 258 cases could be criminally prosecuted.

In that one case, however, “the victim decided they could not participate in the prosecution,” Peterson said with a twinge of emotion.

“Our hope is that somehow this report will allow all victims to know at least that their voices have been heard,” he said, calling the investigation a difficult process and the results “gut-wrenching.”

The state’s investigation began in August 2018. At that time, Peterson asked the Archdiocese to hand over its own records dating back to 1978 on allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy.

Peterson said Thursday that although the church and its leadership has been cooperative with the investigation, he would have a hard time giving them a “blanket pass.”

“We’ve not been able to bring the justice system to bear on those predators, and that’s extremely frustrating,” he said.

Omaha Archbishop George Lucas said prior to the news conference he welcomed the accountability and said the truth would be good for everyone.

In November 2018, the Archdiocese put out a list of 24 priests (38 clergy in all) that it found had substantiated allegations of sexual abuse against minors dating back to 1978. Lucas told 6 News at the time: “We acknowledge these ugly truths of the past so we can repent and so that we can be resolute in our determination that these things will not be repeated.

Its report showed troubled priests had traveled from church to church over the years.

The state requested records from all Catholic church entities and eventually issued 426 subpoenas for documents including psychological evaluations conducted on any priests investigated for sexual misconduct.

With the assistance of the Lincoln Police Department, the AG’s office examined 200 files on clergy members or diocese employees and reviewed 120 calls made to a hotline set up to report related assaults. In total, authorities examine 12 hours of phone interviews and 30,000 pages of records in their investigation and identified more than 250 victims:

  • 97 victims were in the Lincoln diocese; 158 were from the Omaha diocese; and the Grand Island diocese, which includes western Nebraska, had three victims
  • 236 victims were male, primarily boys; and 22 were female
  • In the Omaha diocese, 163 were male and 15 were female; in Lincoln, 92 were male and 5 were female; and in Grand Island 1 was male and 2 were female.
  • In the Omaha diocese, the majority of victims were ages 11-13; in Lincoln, most were older, ages 20 and above. In the Grand Island diocese, 2 were age 10 or younger, and one was 20 or older.
  • In the Omaha diocese, most cases of abuse occurred in the 1970s with several in the 1960s and 1980s; in Lincoln, the majority were in the 1990s with many also in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Grand Island diocese, all 3 cases reported happened in the 2000s.

The 2002 Dallas Charter made a big impact on the number of cases reported in the 2000s, Peterson said, with most cases in the Lincoln and Omaha dioceses occurring prior to that; in the Grand Island diocese, three victims were identified both and after the charter.

“In nearly every case, the offender engaged in some form of grooming behavior prior to committing sexual abuse,” Peterson said.

That behavior included building trusting relationships and emotional connections with not only the victims but sometimes their families as well. Peterson said they used alcohol, camping or other road trips, video games, food, and other enticements to gain the trust and favor of their victims.

The most concerning finding, Peterson said, was that in several cases, church officials — including bishops and archbishops — were often well aware of the abusive actions of a priest but didn’t investigate or stop the behavior, and “did little or nothing to remove him from the ministry.”

Several such offenders were often sent to counseling but would return to their ministry and placed back into situations that put them in contact with children, he said.

The investigation also revealed that many times, no documentation of some victim reports were found among parish files, and often files did not provide a sufficient history of complaints against certain individuals. In other cases, in-house investigations were conducted before any law enforcement personnel were contacted.

Going forward, Peterson said, vigilance, accountability, and enforcement will be imperative. His message for the church: “Don’t ever put the reputation of your association, your church organization, above protecting the children.”

He also implored church leaders, schools, and members to commit to policies and practices to protect young people from child predators.

“We understand in our business that pedophiles will do anything to get access,” he said, noting that today’s challenges include the ability to isolate children through the internet.

Peterson commended the Catholic church for the “appropriate steps they have taken since the Dallas charter” but urged diligence moving forward.

“This is been a painful history for not only the church but for our state,” he said.

In the upcoming legislative session, State Sen. Rich Pahls said he plans to introduce a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for third parties in civil cases involved the sexual assault of a child. Pahls said in a statement that he also plans to introduce a “lookback window” to examine criminal cases where the statutes of limitations expired before Nebraska Law was amended to remove them entirely.

Read the Nebraska Attorney General’s statement

Watch the Nebraska AG’s news conference

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson on Thursday issued the state's report clergy abuse stemming from an investigation begun in August 2018.

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