OMAHA, Neb. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A family has had to go into hiding out of fear of retaliation from their former pastor after they reported a serial abuser's inappropriate contact with their son.
For almost three years, the parents of children at St. Wenceslaus Catholic School in Omaha, Nebraska tried to take measures to protect their sons from a priest they claim was grooming one of them for abuse.
They told Church Militant after speaking with the pastor, Fr. Thomas Bauwens, he threatened them, took away their financial aid and later expelled their sons to keep the knowledge he knew of complaints quiet.
The parents said the trouble started within the first weeks of the school year when Fr. Francis Nigli was assigned to St. Wenceslaus.
After Mass in September, their then 10-year-old boys told them of a very disturbing greeting from Nigli towards one of them.
The one son was so upset by the event, he asked his brother to tell the parents what happened. The brother related that Nigli, who was accustomed to greeting the children every day after school for thumb-wrestling matches or hugs, hugged his brother in a way that made him very uncomfortable and then kissed his forehead.
This was in full view of the brother who said it was "creepy" that only his brother was showered with attention.
"This shows it is grooming," the parents said.
A couple of weeks later, as the family was leaving Mass, the parents witnessed Nigli again hugging and kissing their one son while ignoring the other. They described it as "full frontal" and "very inappropriate."
This was not the first time Nigli was accused of misconduct. In 2013, Nigli was removed from his position at St. Patrick Catholic Church in O'Neill, Nebraska over an allegation he fondled an 18-year-old male over his clothes and kissed him.
After the 2013 incident, Nigli was sent to St. Luke Institute in Maryland. In July 2015, he was assigned to St. Wenceslaus. The decision to return Nigli to active ministry was made by the archbishop of Omaha, Abp. George Lucas and Fr. Bauwens, who is also on the Archdiocesan Review Board for sexual abuse complaints.
The day after the parents saw Nigli's behavior, they met with Fr. Bauwens to discuss the incident.
Father Bauwens, despite having full knowledge of Nigli's history, "immediately became adversarial" and said, "Some people say that I can be a real pr**k; and I can be when I need to be."
When the parents pressed that they knew Nigli had been removed for "imprudent pastoral conduct" before, they said Fr. Bauwens slammed his fist on the desk, leaned towards them and said that was "none of their business." He admitted knowing what the removal was all about and "we had no cause for concern."
He went on to describe a story about when his brother falsely accused him and said, "I was so angry I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stop myself from killing him."
When the parents nervously laughed, they said he aggressively leaned forward and said, "I am not kidding! I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to stop myself from killing him." He then warned the parents "not to be troublemakers."
They said they felt "extremely threatened" but their concerns for their sons and the other 900-plus children in the parish and school outweighed the fear.
Church Militant spoke with two other parishioners who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation. They confirmed Fr. Bauwens has a "horrible temper" and have witnessed it first-hand. While they both also mentioned that "he does a lot of good," one added, "But that doesn't outweigh how he rules the school with an iron fist."
The day after meeting with Fr. Bauwens, in October 2015, the parents sent a letter to Wiliam Huben, the principal at St. Wenceslaus Catholic School, requesting "their sons never be left alone with Nigli at any time due to his inappropriate behavior."
Not wanting their sons to go through confirmation preparations with Nigli, the family formally left the parish in January 2018 but kept the boys in the school.
Father Bauwens responded by stripping them of their need-based financial aid and assessed a $650 out-of-parish fee despite telling them in 2016 that he "was fine with wherever they attended Mass" and was appreciative of their many hours of service to the parish that both parents regularly perform.
In February 2018, two incidents with Nigli led to the parents learning the teachers and staff were never made aware of their report against Nigli or their demand to protect their sons. In the first, their targeted son was singled out by Nigli in the school hallway. Later, the same son was forced to switch confession lines during a penance service and was left distraught after having to go to Nigli for confession.
Nigli continued to work in the school and parish until June 2018, when he was finally removed from St. Wenceslaus after he assaulted a seminarian on parish grounds. Due to the numerous rumors circulating around the parish and Fr. Bauwens' lack of transparency, the parents obtained a copy of the Omaha Police report.
Nigli was again accused of fondling a young man over his clothes and kissing him.
Around that timeframe, the archdiocese was planning to move Nigli to be in residence at St. Stephen the Martyr while he worked as a chaplain at Poor Claire Sisters in Elkhorn and at Methodist Women's Hospital. After the sexual assault, the plan to transfer Nigli was scrapped without telling St. Stephen parishioners why.
Parishioners and parents at St. Wenceslaus were also not told of the reason why Nigli was being removed. One parishioner noted, "He is very charismatic and was well-loved."
In late July 2018, just before the boys were to start their eighth grade school year, the parents received a strange call from Huben followed by a letter from Fr. Bauwens notifying them he was expelling their two sons.
"Catholic Education is a right," Fr. Bauwens starts. "Catholic Education in a five day Catholic School is a privilege."
He then went on to say that he reserves the right to accept or decline admittance to anyone with cause. He claimed, "There has just been too much conflict between you and our Staff in the past," and he doesn't want to continue with "these conflicts over the next year."
Both long-time parishioners said that they were "absolutely positive" the boys were expelled to keep the news quiet he knew about the concerns over Nigli months before the incident with the seminarian.
"He didn't want to look bad to the Review Board or the archbishop," one said.
Saint Wenceslaus is also in the middle of a $25 million capital campaign to build a bigger church. Kicked off with a $10 million gift from Wayne and the late Eileen Ryan, the donation was earmarked specifically for the building of a new church.
Nearly five months after Nigli was removed from the parish, Fr. Bauwens and Abp. Lucas held a town hall meeting with the parishioners of St. Wenceslaus. Church Militant obtained an audio recording of that event and spoke with parishioners who attended the town hall. They were aghast that none of the safeguards the diocese promised were being used.
Archbishop Lucas claimed that the safeguards in place are sufficient and Nigli was safe around children because he is only attracted to 18 to 24-year-old males, not children.
"It's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard," one parishioner said.
"They admitted and the two made the decision to put this slime bag, this pig, among kids and they thought they could 'keep an eye on him,'" another said. "I find it hard to believe that there were no other complaints in the three years he [Nigli] was at St. Wenceslaus."
They went on to explain that after Nigli was removed from the school, he came back after dismissal, unsupervised, and collected phone numbers of some of the middle school boys.
"These people in charge should be removed," one parishioner said. "It's all just words and there's really no action."
"They're still there, it's business as usual," they added. They stopped giving all money to the Church until they "feel the Church as a whole was trying to tackle this problem."
Both parishioners want to see Fr. Bauwens and Abp. Lucas resign or be removed. "We need to clean house," one said. They claimed Fr. Bauwens' homilies for several months after the town hall were threatening, and no matter what the readings, they always came back to having to be loyal and obedient.
The archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic Voice Omaha, reported a mother at the town hall described how she would drop off her 18-year-old son for private counseling with Nigli. Contrary to the safeguards the archdiocese had promised, she would leave him at the parish hall for hours, alone with Nigli.
In a statement to St. Wenceslaus parishioners, Abp. Lucas insisted the sexual assault of the seminarian was reported to the police and they had determined that it was "not considered a crime." Additionally, he assured them, "It was not a violation of the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People]."
Recent reports of the decades-long abuse from ex-Cdl. Theodore McCarrick exposed several fatal flaws in the Dallas Charter, as it's also called. Under McCarrick's guiding hand, the Dallas Charter's protections were diluted to leave young adults and seminarians over 18 vulnerable and exempt bishops from accountability.
In interviews with the Omaha World-Herald, after the town hall meeting, both Bauwens and Deacon Tim McNeil, the chancellor of the archdiocese of Omaha, said St. Luke Institute officials recommended that Nigli not minister to men aged 18–25 and claimed he does not pose a danger to children. Archbishop Lucas ordered that Nigli not have contact with men aged 18 to 30.
Bauwens insisted Nigli "is not a pedophile" but said he regrets assigning Nigli to St. Wenceslaus, saying, "I feel so burned by the guy."
Nigli was last reported to be visiting family in Michigan and Toronto. Archbishop Lucas has declined to remove his faculties, claiming that without a letter of recommendation from him, Nigli cannot serve in other ministries.
Church Militant reached out to Fr. Bauwens, who referred all questions to Deacon McNeil. McNeil did not respond by press time. Huben referred all questions to Fr. Bauwens.