D.M. Priest Is Linked to More Sex-Abuse Allegations of Boys
Jeff Reese brought in the newspaper Sunday morning and his eyes fell on a picture of his old classmate, Tommie Pierick, from their 8th-grade graduation in 1966. The picture had been cropped, but in the original, Reese would have been the tall kid in glasses standing two boys over to the right.
It was the All Saints school in Des Moines, part of the church where they had both served as altar boys with Father Albert (Bert) Wilwerding.
Then Reese read the story and saw a small but pivotal piece of his life between the lines.
Members of Tommie's family were alleging that Tommie had been sexually abused by Wilwerding for years, as an adolescent and teen-ager, and that it had led to Tommie's depression and suicide in 1985.
Five years earlier, Reese had broken his own silence to his wife about two occasions when he was 12 or 13 and says Wilwerding tried to grope and fondle him before mass. The priest, he says, told Reese he would go to hell if he told anyone.
Reese says he can still see the priest's smirk as Wilwerding told him no one would believe him anyway, because he was just a kid and Wilwerding was a priest.
Reese did not tell at the time. But after that, he says, he made sure always to be paired up with "another good-sized guy" when he was serving mass.
Today the tough-talking Ankeny man of 50, whom friends call "the rock," and who peppers his conversation with self-described bar talk, still considers himself religious. But he seldom goes to church anymore. "He stole my faith," he says of Wilwerding.
Of the emotional trauma, he says, "I knew it was really bad then, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that when I was a 50-year-old man, it would still be messing with me."
Wilwerding was quietly spirited away 17 years ago to a treatment center for priests who are sex abusers, according to the Des Moines Diocese. Attempts to reach him at the center in Dittmer, Mo., where the diocese says he is now, have been unsuccessful.
The diocese says it sent Wilwerding away after getting an anonymous phone call about him, and has no knowledge of specific individuals he harmed. But more stories linking Wilwerding to misbehavior with young boys are cropping up everyday.
Reese says a nun at the school once asked him about it, but he said nothing. Now he feels guilty because maybe Tommie, who was spending lots of time with Wilwerding, could have been spared.
Since the Sunday story ran, other people have contacted me about Wilwerding. From the sounds of it, the priest was well known for hanging around boys, and having them stay over at a farmhouse with him. And apparently rumors -even jokes -about his conduct with boys were rampant.
Another woman, whose sons went to All Saints, told me she was warned by another adult not to leave her sons around Wilwerding because of stories that boys in Perry, where Wilwerding was before Des Moines, "had really been messed up by him." Boys in Milo, where he was assigned later, had similar accounts, she says.
But not until after Sunday's article did the woman ask one of her sons if the priest had tried anything with him -and was horrified to hear he had.
Another man who said he was friends with Tommie told me he knew about the abuse and even told his parents.
With all these people supposedly talking or warning each other in the 1960s and '70s, the diocese, we are told, knew nothing until 1984 -and then no specifics. So all that time, Wilwerding maintained his status and his access to children.
Though he no longer has a ministry, Wilwerding is still officially a priest, collecting a pension in a church-supported treatment center, instead of prison, where Jeff Reese, for one, thinks he belongs.
Asked about that, Bishop Joseph Charron said if he had gone to prison, he would have been out by now. This way, he's still secured from the public.
This week, Tommie's family got an apology from an unexpected place -Wilwerding's brother and sister-in-law in Earling, who said they were hearing detailed allegations against him for the first time.
Jane Newlin, Tommie's sister, says their call helped renew her faith that "even though there is this bad seed here, it isn't like the whole apple cart is bad."
The family has yet to get such a faith-restoring call from the diocese.
Rekha Basu's can be reached at email@example.com or 515 284-8584.
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