Alleged Abuse by Priest Linked to '85 Suicide
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After an episode in the late 1970s, Polich says she was sitting by his bed in the Mercy Hospital emergency room in Des Moines. Her heavily medicated son, then 26 or 27, lay strapped down.
Cursing, he began to "blaspheme" the priest who had served as associate pastor at All Saints Catholic Church, where they worshipped, Polich says. The priest who had befriended Tommie when he was a student at All Saints School. The priest who brought him gifts, took him on outings, often invited him over to spend the night.
Now her son was calling the Rev. Bert Wilwerding "the devil" and saying he had ruined his life. Polich says she felt the room spinning as Tommie told her that Wilwerding had sexually abused him from about age 12 through high school.
As an adult, Tommie could never hold down a job or relationship. He was engaged to be married three times and broke off each engagement. "His life was forever changed, and he went from this little boy to a man that was in such deep depression that he couldn't grow up like a regular person," Polich says today. "We were taught that a priest was God's servant, and always treat him with respect and trust. Little did we know that he would bring such evil into our lives." In January 1985, at 32, Tommie Pierick overdosed one last time—and died.
[Photo Captions: Better days: Tommie Pierick on Christmas Eve in 1981, at right as a grade-school student at All Saints in Des Moines and as a graduate of the eighth grade at All Saints. Special to the Register.]
By that time, Wilwerding had slipped out of sight. The Des Moines Catholic Diocese says that two months earlier, in November 1984, the priest had been dispatched to one of several church-run treatment centers for priests who are sex abusers.
Seventeen years later, he remains at the Vianney Renewal Center's Program for Psychosexual Issues and Abuse in Dittmer, Mo. Messages for Wilwerding, left at the center by voice mail, e-mail and fax, were not returned.
The diocese does not acknowledge that Wilwerding abused Tommie Pierick. "The only record we have in his (Wilwerding's) file is when (Tommie's sister) Jane Newlin came in in 1993," says diocese spokesman Tom Chapman. "She was relating that Tommie had come forward. We don't have any record of that."
For that matter, church officials say they have no records linking the priest to the abuse of anyone in particular. Wilwerding's removal, the diocese says, was prompted by an anonymous phone call the day before he was sent away, implicating him in sexual activity with an unnamed minor.
Tommie's mother and sister say Bishop Maurice Dingman heard Tommie's complaint about Wilwerding in 1978, soon after Tommie's disclosure to his mother, but Dingman took no action. An uncle of Tommie's who was a priest in the diocese says he, too, told the bishop of Tommie's accusations at about the same time.
Tommie's sister is skeptical about the diocese's story of an anonymous phone call. Two weeks ago, a diocese spokesman told The Des Moines Register that Wilwerding was sent away in 1981, but last week called back and said it was November 1984, making it just two months before Tommie killed himself.
Chapman and Larry Breheny, retired chancellor for the diocese, acknowledge that it seems odd for a vague, anonymous call to have triggered such decisive action on Wilwerding the very next day, in 1984. Under normal circumstances, Breheny says, "to take an anonymous call and move that quickly would not have been appropriate. The diocese would have had some evidence or proof."
Tommie's mother and sister are certain that his death was the result of years of sexual abuse by a priest. They say some acknowledgement or apology from the diocese would have gone a long way toward helping them heal. Counselors at Polk County Victim Services say such acknowledgment is crucial in allowing families to move forward. "What they want is, they want the community that nurtures their being to recognize what's been taken from them," says Sharon Thomas, manager and clinical director, speaking in general about victims of abuse by clergy. "What you would do is just say, 'We failed you.' "
The family says instead it got an offer of counseling when Newlin went to the diocese in 1993, eight years after her brother's death. With no action taken on her son's behalf, Polich feels that Tommie's life was in vain. "His life has no meaning," she says.
The passage of time and the recent disclosures about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have emboldened Newlin and her mother to make Tommie's story public. They say they hope the church will take steps to prevent abuse and recognize the permanent agony to which victims and their families are subjected.
Wilwerding entered their lives in the 1960s, when he became associate pastor at All Saints, then at Third Street and Ovid Avenue. Polich and her husband were divorcing, and Tommie was at the church school. It was the same school his two siblings and his mother had attended. He was an altar boy.
Polich, who now lives in Texas, says Tommie was taking the divorce hard and needed a father figure. "When this kindly priest started coming to the house and taking Tommie under his wing, I thought it was just wonderful," she says. Wilwerding would take Tommie out to eat or on other excursions, Newlin says, often keeping him for weekends at a farmhouse he was remodeling.
Newlin remembers Wilwerding as fun, personable and charismatic. Though he never invited her along on the outings and frequently didn't get out of the car when he came to pick up Tommie, he was attentive to her when their paths crossed.
Breheny worked with Wilwerding during the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s. The former chancellor remembers him as gentle and social-justice-minded, "kind of a street priest" for whom "the people came before the rules and regulations."
Polich and Newlin say Wilwerding gave Tommie a television, encyclopedias and other gifts. Newlin remembers her brother showing her hundreds of dollars in silver coins he said the priest had given him. She was amazed, but Tommie was surprisingly blase about it, she recalls.
Polich didn't know about the silver coins, but she remembers Tommie in high school returning some Wilwerding gifts without explanation. "He never let his feelings be known," she recalls. Newlin says she watched her brother go from a happy boy who got good grades to one who was always sad and anxious. She says Tommie developed stomach problems around the time that he and Wilwerding began spending time together. The doctor attributed them to stress over schoolwork and warned he could develop an ulcer, Newlin says.
Newlin expressed concern about Wilwerding to Tommie when her younger brother was about 16. She says she was asking because an older friend who went to the same church had raised questions. "He didn't say anything for a little bit. Then he looked down and said, 'No, nothing like that's happened.' "
Newlin remembers that Wilwerding was reassigned to a parish in south-central Iowa within days of that conversation. Chapman confirmed that Wilwerding was reassigned in 1969. Breheny says priests were commonly reassigned and that it had nothing to do with abuse allegations. "The bishops I worked with would not tolerate an 'OK, let's-just-move-him-to-the-next-town' approach,' " he says.
Tommie continued to have contact with Wilwerding while he attended North High School. Newlin says Wilwerding would still visit him after being reassigned. She believes her brother stopped seeing the priest when he was in college, though she says Wilwerding wanted Tommie to share an apartment or house with him in that period. While Tommie was in college, around 1973, his mother says, his depression surfaced and he began trying to kill himself.
The day after Tommie told his mother about Wilwerding, Polich told her brother, Bernie Gottner, who was also a priest in the diocese. Gottner, who has since left the priesthood for unrelated reasons, says he told Dingman and confronted Wilwerding, who "assured me nothing like that would ever happen again."
Gottner says Dingman was "very sympathetic and very disturbed." As far as he can recall, the bishop took no action against Wilwerding. "I feel that probably this was the only mistake that Bishop Dingman ever made," Gottner says. "He was a great, wonderful, caring person." That was an era when "bishops and priests thought in terms of it being a sin and that there could be treatment and forgiveness," he says. Dingman served as bishop until 1987 and died in 1992.
As for his nephew, Gottner says, "I grieve Tommie's death and I pray nothing like this ever happens to anybody else." On the day that Tommie was to go and speak to the bishop, Polich says that he stopped by her house. She remembers that he wore a suit. Afterward, he said that he had spoken to Dingman. But the diocese says it has no records of Tommie's visit or of anyone making an allegation during Tommie's lifetime about Wilwerding abusing him.
In 1993, eight years after her brother's death, Newlin emerged from a period of isolation and decided she needed some resolution. "I had never dealt with Tommie's death," she says, "and I found myself crying all the time about Tommie." She went to the diocese office, taking along a tape recording from her mother telling everything she knew. She was told Wilwerding couldn't be located.
What Newlin really wanted, she says, was a meeting with Wilwerding. "I wanted to know why he did that to Tommie. I wanted to hear him say, 'I'm sorry.' I wanted him to know that Tommie was dead. If he was doing anything else, I wanted to stop him."
Through a chance meeting later with a former priest, she heard Wilwerding was in New Mexico at a church-run treatment center for sex offenders. When she returned to the chancery to inquire further, she says she was told he had walked away from the treatment center and couldn't be found. Newlin says she asked to see the files on Tommie and was told no one's files could be shared. "They told me that this case with me was closed and they would offer me counseling," she says. She declined. "It just seemed like they kept putting stops on everything I wanted to do."
Breheny, who was chancellor from 1990 to 1998 and met with Newlin in 1993, says Wilwerding did walk away from the New Mexico facility but was eventually returned to treatment. He later went to another treatment center in California and now is at the Missouri center.
The Missouri facility's Web site says it offers "assistance in working on psychosexual issues, particularly when these issues have involved some form of boundary violations. For those who have been involved in sexual abuse of others, a qualified recovery program is offered according to generally accepted professional standards and authentic Catholic teaching on sexuality and celibacy."
Church officials note that the priest hasn't been able to harm anyone for the past 17 years and is unlikely to in the future. "I don't think there's any prospect of that," Chapman said when asked if Wilwerding might ever be serving in the ministry again. The length of Wilwerding's stay in treatment, Chapman says, has been based on the evaluation of the people who run the facility.
Gottner, Tommie's uncle, says he understands that decisions were made in the context of the times. He wishes all this hadn't been dredged up. "If it had happened today," he says, "I would have called the police."
In 1988, three years after Tommie killed himself, the Des Moines Diocese adopted a policy of investigating every abuse allegation and requiring the bishop to be informed and to temporarily remove the priest from his duties. Police or child-protection agencies must be contacted, and the victim must be offered counseling. If the investigation confirms abuse, a priest gets diagnosis and treatment. He is forbidden to work with minors for up to five years.
The bishop decides when or whether a priest can resume duties, but there is no policy that calls for defrocking a priest, or addresses what happens if a priest is arrested or convicted of sex-abuse charges. "If a priest is not allowed to be in ministry," says Chapman[,] the public is as protected as it would be if he were (defrocked)."
Polich believes her son might have healed if the priest had been punished in Tommie's lifetime. Newlin says her brother suffered feelings of guilt. Tommie's mother, who was a devout Catholic, never went public before with what her son told her for fear of hurting her aging mother and her brother, the priest. Now she wishes she had.
She also wishes she had gone with Tommie to see the bishop. "I let my son down," she says. "I should have gone public right then. I should have. I should have.
"I wish I would have filed a lawsuit against them so I would have been able to do something in Tom's name." For years after her brother's disclosure, Newlin wouldn't leave her own children with baby sitters. "If you can't trust a priest," she said, "are you going to trust a regular person?"
The diocese hasn't tallied the number of sexual-abuse accusations made against its priests, and there's no way to track the number of suicides linked to abuse allegations. Bishop Joseph Charron is in the process of appointing a committee to consider revisions to the diocese's policy on sexual abuse and may be guided by a new nationwide church policy due out in June.
But as far as Jane Newlin is concerned, anything short of zero tolerance won't help. "If there had been a zero-tolerance policy," she says, "Wilwerding probably would not have considered coming into the priesthood and Tommie would probably still have been alive."
Rekha Basu's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in Iowa Life and Sundays in Opinion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (515) 284-8584.
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