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Sex Abuse Crisis

Nebraska prelate rebukes Catholics for critical letters to newspaper


Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., sent written rebukes to two Catholics who in letters to the local newspaper had criticized his decision to reassign a priest accused of viewing Internet child pornography.

To Jeanne Bast, an 80-year-old mother of 11 and a retired teacher at Catholic grade schools, Curtiss wrote: “I am surprised that a woman your age and with your background would write such a negative letter in the secular press against me without any previous dialogue. You should be ashamed of yourself!” Bast’s letter appeared in the March 13 issue of the Omaha World-Herald.

The archbishop also told Bast, “The church has enough trouble defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics.”

In a letter to Frank Ayers, 58, whose letter was published in the March 9 World-Herald, Curtiss said, “Any Catholic who uses the secular media to air complaints against the leadership of the church, without any dialogue with that leadership, is a disgrace to the church.”

The archbishop concluded both of his letters by instructing the recipient to say a Hail Mary for him “for your penance.” The letters were copied to Bast’s and Ayers’ pastors.

The Omaha World-Herald learned of the letters and contacted Bast and Ayers, who confirmed the contents.

The letters that provoked Curtiss’ admonishments had criticized his handling of the case of Fr. Robert Allgaier, who has been charged with attempted possession of child pornography. According to the World-Herald, Allgaier was sent for counseling and removed from high school teaching duties in early 2001 after the archbishop learned he had viewed child pornography on an office computer at a Norfolk, Neb., parish where he was assistant pastor. Then in June 2001, Allgaier was transferred to St. Gerald Parish in Ralston, where he taught religion at St. Joan of Arc-St. Gerald Middle School.

The archbishop removed Allgaier from St. Gerald in February just before authorities brought charges against the priest, who has pleaded not guilty. In a statement, Curtiss said that psychologists and counselors had indicated that Allgaier was no threat to children.

In his letter to the World-Herald, Ayers, a parishioner at St. Gerald, questioned the assertion that children of the parish were in no danger, and called on the archdiocese to be forthcoming with the information it has about priests accused of deviant behavior. “Archbishop Curtiss should realize that these are our children,” he said. “We will decide whether we want to take the chance.”

Curtiss wrote to Ayers that he would be willing to discuss the contents of Ayers’ public letter and told him to make an appointment with his secretary. However, Ayers -- who at first thought the letter was a hoax -- told NCR that he hasn’t yet followed up on that offer. He said he would prefer the archbishop meet with the parishioners of St. Gerald Parish, who expressed this desire to an archdiocesan representative who met with them March 12.

“I don’t think he owes me a personal apology, but he does need to meet with people,” Ayers said, “because he seems totally out of touch with people in the archdiocese.”

In her letter, Bast said that Curtiss had shown “bad judgment” and that Allgaier should have been relieved of both his priestly and teaching duties immediately. “Archbishop Curtiss did a disservice to the people of the archdiocese and owes them a public apology for not being truthful and forthright about this problem from the very beginning,” she wrote.

Bast told NCR she sent the letter to the World-Herald because she didn’t expect any results from sending it to Curtiss. She said she felt sympathy for Allgaier, whose actions were wrong, but who has not been accused of any misconduct with children. “My issue is with the archbishop,” Bast said. “He’s another one of these bishops who just doesn’t get it.”

As for Curtiss’ response to her letter, Bast called it “very childish for a man in his position. He’s got more important things to do I think.”

Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002