An associate pastor at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church has been dismissed from the parish after asking middle school students during confession if they masturbated or watched pornography.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor and spokesman for the Archdiocese of Omaha, said the Rev. Nicholas Mishek, 26, is an inexperienced priest who was overzealous in his questioning and made a lapse in judgment. He has been removed from St. Robert Bellarmine, but the archdiocese will work with him to review the training he received in the seminary.
“There was this line of questioning that’s unacceptable, and he asked two questions that are particularly unacceptable,” McNeil said. “And parents reacted strongly, and should have, and we responded to that.”
Mishek was ordained in June and received a favorable report from the seminary, McNeil said. There are no prior complaints or incidents involving him, McNeil said.
Parents at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic School received a letter Monday signed by Principal Sandra Suiter and the Rev. Steven Stillmunks, the parish pastor, outlining the incident that happened last week and the school’s response. The K-8 school is near 120th and Pacific Streets.
According to the letter, on Friday morning, a parent notified Suiter that Mishek had asked inappropriate questions of seventh- and eighth-graders during confession Thursday. Several parents stepped forward with similar stories..
The letter states that during confession, Mishek asked seventh- and eighth-graders if they cheated, lied, watched pornography or masturbated.
It was later discovered that he had asked fifth- and sixth-graders “similar inappropriate questions” during confession Wednesday, though those questions were worded more vaguely, such as “have you ever viewed or watched inappropriate shows or videos?”
The letter says that within 10 minutes of the first parent complaint, Suiter reported the allegations to Stillmunks. He was traveling out of town but turned around to return to the parish and contacted the archdiocese.
By 1 p.m. that day, Stillmunks dismissed Mishek from his duties at St. Robert Bellarmine, a decision supported by Archbishop George Lucas, McNeil said.
“We are grateful to those parents who came forward and notified us in such a timely way,” Suiter and Stillmunks wrote in the letter. “Because of their quick response, we were able to take necessary steps immediately. We especially want to thank our brave students who knew this was inappropriate and voiced their concerns to their parents.”
Mishek did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The World-Herald.
A parent meeting is scheduled for tonight at the Mainelli Center at the church. Officials from the school and parish and the manager of the Archdiocesan Office of Victim Outreach and Prevention will attend.
Homeroom teachers talked to students in grades 5 through 8 to let them know whom they could talk to if they had any concerns or questions. “In future days, additional conversations will take place with our students about the sacrament of reconciliation,” the letter said.
McNeil said confession is not supposed to be an interrogation, and priests are trained to let whoever is confessing lead the conversation.
“There are parents who are Catholic who have experiences of their own with the sacrament of reconciliation who know questioning is not a usual or encouraged practice,” McNeil said. “The nature of those two questions, they thought that was a little personal and maybe too invasive.”
Students at Catholic schools may go to confession weekly, monthly or around holy holidays, McNeil said. Kids are often given a handout to prompt reflection, called the examination of conscience.
“I think he was trying to get them to really discern and be in touch with any sinful behavior they had,” McNeil said. “So I think it was a case of, from what we know right now, a case of trying to be too helpful.”
No decisions have been made about Mishek’s next assignment, and there’s no effort underway to remove him from the priesthood, McNeil said.
“There wasn’t a civil offense, not a canonical offense, not a criminal offense, none of that,” he said.
[written by Erin Duffy]