OMAHA, Neb. - The Omaha Archdiocese has admitted that negligent supervision of a Roman Catholic priest in the 1990s contributed to his sexual abuse of a 14-year-old altar boy, a judge said yesterday.

So two civil lawsuits against the archdiocese scheduled for trial next week will decide only damages, not whether the church was responsible, District Judge Robert Burkhard said.

The lawsuits were filed by the former altar boy and his mother several years ago, before the recent priest sex abuse accusations began sweeping the U.S. church. Plaintiffs' attorney Harold Zabin said he planned to seek at least $1 million in damages from the archdiocese.

Zabin was asked whether a settlement might be reached before the trial begins.

"It's up to them," he replied, gesturing to archdiocese attorneys, who declined to comment.

The accused priest, the Rev. Daniel Herek, was convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting the boy and manufacturing child pornography while he was pastor at St. Richard's Catholic Church.

Herek served 2 1/2 years in prison before being released to a state mental health facility.

The lawsuits claim the archdiocese knew Herek posed a danger to children but did nothing to protect parishioners.

Previously, archdiocese officials said they had received no complaints about Herek that raised alarm or warranted removing him from contact with children.

The chancellor of the archdiocese, the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, said Herek's conviction played a part in the decision to admit negligence.

"Father Herek was convicted of a criminal charge with this specific individual," Gutgsell said. "As that point, basic liability has been admitted."

Herek was ordained in 1971 and served in parishes in the archdiocese until his removal from St. Richard's in 1997.

Other former altar boys have filed lawsuits against the archdiocese regarding Herek. Two suits have been settled out of court; four others are scheduled for trial later this year.

Elsewhere:

  • Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law reinstated the Rev. Ronald Paquin in 1998 despite numerous allegations of child molestation against the priest, The Boston Globe reported yesterday, citing internal church documents. Paquin, 59, was removed from parish work in 1990 after allegations of sexual misconduct, sent for treatment and then lived at a home for problem priests. Church documents show that between 1990 and 1996, 13 more complaints of misconduct over the previous two decades were received.

    Paquin's reinstatement came six months after Law defrocked the Rev. John Geoghan, whose child molestation conviction sparked the current scandal. Paquin has pleaded innocent to three counts of rape of a child and is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.

  • Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., asked seven priests to step down from ministry over allegations of sexual misconduct. He said allegations against one of the men were made in the 1990s and came to the diocese's attention in 1997. Allegations against the others are 20 to 40 years old but were brought to the diocese's attention in the past eight weeks.

  • The head of the Cleveland Diocese said any priest guilty of sexual abuse against a child will be permanently banned from ministry, despite misgivings among other bishops about such "zero-tolerance" policies.

  • Five people filed a lawsuit against dioceses in Lexington and Covington, Ky., alleging they covered up complaints of sexual abuse and allowed abusive priests to stay active within their parishes.

  • The Santa Rosa, Calif., Diocese said it has begun fingerprinting priests and other employees who work with children to identify sex offenders. The prints will be sent to state authorities for a criminal records check. The Monterey Diocese began requiring fingerprinting of priests this month.

  • Maricopa County, Ariz., prosecutors announced a criminal investigation to see whether the Phoenix Diocese has failed to report sexual misconduct by priests. Diocese officials said they were in communication with prosecutors but declined to comment further.