Decades Later, Man Hopes Truth of Abuse Will Set Him Free
By Rekha Basu
For decades, Jim Pierick has lived with the guilt of his brother's death, and an ugly secret.
He kept it even after the story broke about his younger brother, Tommie, a suicide victim, being sexually abused by a Catholic priest. He kept it after the Des Moines Catholic Diocese moved to defrock Father Albert Wilwerding, acknowledging what the priest had done to Tommie Pierick.
But Jim Pierick isn't willing to live with his secret any longer. "It's the secret," he said, "that kept it going."
He was Wilwerding's first victim, he said. When he refused to take it anymore, Wilwerding turned his attention to the younger brother.
Pierick makes those allegations in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Polk County District Court.
The lawsuit names Wilwerding, the Des Moines Diocese and All Saints Church, and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages for severe and permanent emotional distress. It says the church and diocese "either knew or should have known" and "purposely and intentionally failed to take action against him (Wilwerding) or to prevent further abuse of the plaintiff."
Tommie Pierick was abused by Wilwerding all the way through high school, according to his mother, and led a tortured life for years until killing himself in 1985. But until a Des Moines Register story in 2002 told of Tommie Pierick's disclosures -after one of many suicide attempts -to his mother, Jim Pierick had had no confirmation the priest he shunned had gone on to abuse his brother.
Pierick, 53, a youth social worker, lives in Albert Lea, Minn. Tommie Pierick was born 2 1/2 years after him.
Jim Pierick's alleged abuse began in summer 1964. Wilwerding was a pastor in Des Moines' All Saints Parish, which Pierick and his family attended, the lawsuit alleges. The priest came to the house one day and asked to take Pierick, then 14, for a ride. On the way, Wilwerding asked Pierick his thoughts about sex between men and told him how much he liked him and his brother. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Pierick said the discussion left him very confused. "I thought he was asking me those questions to find out if I had sinned," he said.
Later that week, Wilwerding came by again and invited him out for dinner. Instead, Pierick said, the priest drove to Saylorville Dam and made sexual contact with him while quoting passages from the Bible about male orgies and saying it was all right for men to have sex.
Wilwerding visited a third time, apologizing for his actions and promising it wouldn't happen again. But again, Pierick said, Wilwerding took him to a remote location, made him take off his pants and had sex with him -telling the young boy that he represented God, and that if he was doing anything wrong, he would be stopped.
Pierick said he jumped out of the car. "On the way home, he asked me if we could keep meeting." Pierick said no. "He said, 'If you don't do that, I'm sure your brother will.' "
Pierick said he told no one because "I didn't feel that I could," and he didn't think anyone would believe him. Though he didn't warn his brother, he said, he tried to prevent him from going out with Wilwerding when the priest came looking for him. But it didn't work.
Later, he would ask his brother if anything had happened, and Tommie Pierick would say no. But Jim Pierick had his suspicions.
About a year before the story about Tommie Pierick broke, Jim Pierick finally told his wife about his own abuse. Only later did he learn that his brother had filed a complaint with the diocese in the late 1970s, and that their uncle, who was also a priest, had discussed it with then-Bishop Maurice Dingman. But nothing happened to Wilwerding until 1985, when he was transferred to a center for abusive priests. Wilwerding never returned.
In 1993, Jim Pierick's sister, Jane Newlin, visited the diocese but was told there was no record of Tommie Pierick's complaint.
Roxanne Conlin is Jim Pierick's attorney. She says the diocese has "willfully blinded itself to the conduct of its priests."
The lawsuit says the church and diocese had a duty to exercise care in hiring and supervising Wilwerding, and warning parishioners of Wilwerding's "harmful and unlawful conduct."
Anne Marie Cox, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said the diocese had not seen the lawsuit and would withhold comment.
Jim Pierick says the abuse caused him to lose faith in the church, become confused about his sexual identity, and fall into drug and alcohol abuse. He lacked confidence and became overly protective of his two sons. "I suffered a horrendous amount of guilt, never understanding why I let him go on being victimized," he said of his brother.
He has since come to understand that he was also a victim.
In September, Pierick got the call about Wilwerding's defrocking. He was headed out to eat with his wife, and he cried all the way to the restaurant, through the half-hour wait and periodically during dinner. He was crying from grief for his brother's lost years and from relief that there was justice. And Pierick was crying for himself and his own secret.
He is hoping that now, finally, the truth will set him free.
Rekha Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515 284-8584
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