Parishioners demand transparency in priest assignments

They should have known the priest assigned to their Omaha parish in 2015 had been accused two years earlier of an unwanted sexual advance against an 18-year-old man.

They should have known the priest, Father Francis Nigli, was sent to a Maryland treatment center for several months in 2013 before being returned to ministry, first in Blair and then in St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha.

And they should have been told more when Father Nigli was removed from public ministry in June after being accused of sexually assaulting a 21-year-old man. Police were informed, and no charges have been filed.

At that time, members of St. Wenceslaus were informed that Father Nigli was removed from ministry for misconduct involving an adult who was not a parishioner.

Rumors about what might have happened and social media posts expressing concern led to a parishwide meeting Oct. 25, when dozens of parishioners expressed their grievances to Archbishop George J. Lucas in a crowded St. Wenceslaus Church.

The archbishop answered all questions for more than three hours. People thanked him for coming and expressed gratitude to Father Thomas Bauwens, the pastor, for his willingness to be open about the situation. But they also criticized decisions that were made and said too much had been withheld from them for too long.

Currently, Father Nigli has been spending time with family in Toronto and Michigan. He cannot serve anywhere as a priest without a letter of good standing from Archbishop Lucas, and that letter will not be provided, parishioners were told at the meeting.

The archbishop promised to take steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“My decision to send him (Father Nigli) here was not the right decision,” the archbishop said. “I didn’t see that then, but I do now … I’m very sorry about that. It grieves me to think about an innocent person being harmed and a parish community being harmed.”

In light of what happened, all present assignments of priests and deacons will be reviewed, to “make certain each is appropriately placed,” the archbishop said. And a clearer code of conduct will be established, so clergy and laity know more precisely what is expected, he said.

“I’m hearing very clearly a call for more transparency and accountability,” Archbishop Lucas said. “What seemed appropriate several years ago in this case doesn’t seem appropriate now.”

The decision to assign Father Nigli to St. Wenceslaus was not made in isolation, the archbishop said. The incident in 2013 when Father Nigli was pastor of St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill was reported to police, and no charges were filed. The priest admitted and repented of his offense, and prior to that he had a good record of pastoral service. Father Nigli successfully completed treatment and was given some ministry responsibilities in Blair. And the priest asked to be returned to full-time ministry, the archbishop said.

Nothing under church law prevented fulfilling his request, the archbishop said. It was discussed at length with the Archdiocesan Review Board, made up of lay experts in law enforcement, child welfare, psychology, education and medicine, and one priest.

Ultimately, it was decided that Father Nigli could be assigned to St. Wenceslaus, with oversight from Father Bauwens, who sits on the review board, the archbishop said. Father Nigli was instructed not to engage in regular ministry with young adults, to take full advantage of a therapist, a support group and lay and clergy assistance, the archbishop said.

Parishioners questioned the wisdom of that decision, and several worried about what might have happened that has not been learned or reported.

One woman said Father Nigli was an important part of her family’s lives, including her three children. Her 18-year-old son was struggling at one point and several times visited with Father Nigli behind closed doors. Now, she doesn’t know what might have happened, she told the archbishop.

“How was my son in the back room with Father Francis?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell people he was not supposed to do that? He was behind closed doors. Why didn’t you protect my son?”

The archbishop said he felt safeguards in place were sufficient. But he acknowledged the difficulty, and encouraged the woman to talk with her son about his relationship with Father Nigli.

“As I said earlier, we should have been more transparent,” the archbishop. “And we weren’t.”

Among suggestions by parishioners were more laity involvement in church oversight and decisions, a look at possible changes to the Archdiocesan Review Board and a review of what kind of evaluation and treatment is provided to priests.

“My concern is the review board,” one man said. “My wife and I find it very difficult to comprehend that that group of 11 people knew what happened in O’Neill and thought Father Francis should be in a large parish like this.”

The archbishop said those suggestions would be taken into full account.

“What has been accepted as best practices up until now is not enough,” the archbishop said. “We need to be more transparent.”

One parishioner said he worked closely with Father Nigli while he was at St. Wenceslaus. He said the priest is a flawed man, not a monster.

“I know I’m in the minority, but I thank you for giving him a second chance,” the man told Archbishop Lucas. “And because of my love for the church and the priesthood, I thank you for removing him from ministry.”

A native of India, Father Nigli was ordained in the Archdiocese of Omaha in 1997. He served as associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha from 1997-2001 and St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion from 2001-03. He was parish administrator of St. Columbkille from 2003-04 and St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill and St. Joseph Parish in Amelia for part of 2004. He was pastor in O’Neill and Amelia from 2004-13, when he also served as president of St. Mary elementary and high school in O’Neill.

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