He suffered for years while his abuser became a priest. Then he called police.

Cincinnati Enquirer / cincinnati.com

March 22, 2023

By Dan Horn

Photo caption: Paul Neyer and his wife, Liesl, stand inside their home Feb. 12. Paul Neyer decided to come forward with abuse allegations against the Rev. Geoff Drew almost 30 years after he was abused. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Paul Neyer swiped the screen on his phone and watched the images race by.

Friends mugged for the camera. Kids posed with pets. The usual Facebook stuff. It was the end of a long week in 2017 and Paul welcomed the distraction. He just wanted to relax on the couch in his family room without thinking too much.

But after a few minutes, he stopped scrolling. His eyes fixed on a photo someone had posted of a Catholic priest baptizing a baby.

Paul’s hands shook and his heart quickened. Still clutching the phone, he jumped to his feet and rushed out the front door to the porch. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe.

When he came back inside, still trying to catch his breath, his wife was waiting.

She asked what was wrong.

He handed her the phone.

“That’s him,” he said.

Making the Call

Two years later, in late July 2019, Paul called the police. He told them the priest in the photo raped him multiple times over three years, starting in 1988, just shy of Paul’s 10th birthday. He said the man’s name was Geoff Drew.

For almost three decades, the thought of reporting Drew to authorities rarely crossed Paul’s mind. He didn’t want anyone to know. He became convinced people would blame him, judge him or reject him. Most, he figured, wouldn’t believe him.

Going public would change everything. Not only for Paul and the man who abused him, but for everyone around him, for everyone he cared about. It would put his private pain on display.

It would alter lives in ways he couldn’t predict.

Paul knew this and it terrified him. But after seeing the photo of Drew presiding at the baptism in 2017, he started to worry about staying silent.

If he continued to do nothing, to say nothing, what then? Would another child grow up with a secret as terrible as his own?

Drew was a music teacher when he abused Paul in his office at the St. Jude parish school in Bridgetown. But now, as a priest, he was in an even greater position of authority. He was around kids who trusted him and parents who knew nothing about his past.

Paul agonized over what to do. He’d assumed for most of his life that the abuse was a burden he’d always bear alone. The anxiety and depression. The panic attacks. The way he felt like a scared 10-year-old boy every time he considered sharing the secret Drew had convinced him he must never tell.

He’d managed to overcome that fear a few times, opening up to his wife, Liesl, and some others about the abuse. But most people in his life had no idea. His parents, both devout Catholics, didn’t know. His co-workers and most of his friends didn’t know. His teenage son didn’t know.

If he spoke out about the abuse, he would no longer be alone. But his pain, his burden, would become part of their lives, too.

And if he didn’t speak out, other children would be at risk.

The choice seemed impossible, right up to the moment Paul picked up his phone and called the police.

No Going Back

Not long after he met with Green Township police detectives on July 30, 2019, Paul came to bed late and curled up next to Liesl. He began sobbing so violently he woke her.

He’d stayed up to watch the movie “Spotlight,” about the clergy abuse scandal in Boston, and seemed to be suffering a flashback to his own abuse. Liesl didn’t know what to do. Her 40-year-old husband, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound plumbing company manager who dug trenches for a living, was shaking like a frightened child in their bed.

Paul told her he wasn’t sure he could go through with the criminal case against Drew.

Photo caption: Liesl Neyer stands inside her home on Feb. 12. Liesl’s husband, Paul, decided to come forward with abuse allegations against the Rev. Geoff Drew almost 30 years after he was abused. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Liesl understood why he was worried. She was worried, too. Although their names weren’t public, TV and social media overflowed with news and commentary about the case.

They lived on the city’s heavily Catholic West Side, not far from where Drew worked as a priest at St. Ignatius of Loyola in Green Township. Many of their friends and neighbors went to Catholic grade schools and high schools.

Liesl feared it was only a matter of time until someone figured out Paul was the one who called police. Once that happened, the pressure on their family would be even greater. They had kids to think about: a baby, another on the way and Paul’s teenaged son from a previous marriage. They were building a life here.

But as she tried to comfort Paul that night, Liesl told him there was no going back.

“We’re not running away now,” she said.

Liesl had seen this before, her husband laid low by a memory, by a sight or sound or offhand remark that without warning dragged him back more than 30 years, back to Drew’s office at St. Jude.

In those moments, trembling and crying, Paul barely resembled the man she married. He was a kid again. Scared and alone.

The first time it happened, years earlier, they were dating. They’d gone out a few times and were getting serious. Paul, who was a cop in Delhi Township at the time, called one night and asked her to meet him in a parking lot. He sounded nervous.

Paul was waiting for her when she arrived. He talked so fast, like an anxious kid, that Liesl struggled to keep up.

Paul told her he’d been sexually abused as a child. He said it messed him up and made it hard for him to be in healthy relationships. He said he didn’t know if he was worthy of another person’s love.

“I don’t know who I am,” he said.

Maybe, Liesl thought, he was giving her fair warning, letting her know what she was getting into. Or maybe he cared enough about their relationship to tell her something he’d been afraid to tell anyone else. Maybe he was asking for help.

When he finished, Paul told her it was OK if she wanted to leave. He said he’d understand.

She stayed. That night and every night after.

It’s Going to Haunt You

On a Friday evening in early 2018, about a year before he called police, Paul sat in front of a campfire with his friend, Marc Duebber, waiting to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to him.

Photo caption: Paul Neyer’s friend Marc Duebber stands inside one of his garages March 3. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Marc and Paul were spending the weekend at “Man Camp,” a retreat sponsored by Crossroads Church. The idea was to head into the woods with hundreds of guys to camp, hike, pray, clear brush and have tough conversations about becoming better men.

Marc, who ran a weekly men’s support group out of his family’s car repair shop, invited Paul to join him at the camp a few years earlier. They’d both become regulars.

As they sat around the fire, a pastor asked everyone in the group to reveal something that made them feel vulnerable, a secret that would have less power over them if they shared it with supportive friends.

When it was Paul’s turn, he said a priest raped him when he was a kid.

Marc was stunned. He knew Paul about as well as anyone. He knew he struggled with anxiety and depression. He knew he sometimes had trouble with relationships.

But he didn’t know this.

What happened the next morning shocked Marc almost as much. At the suggestion of the pastor, Paul agreed to tell his story on the camp’s main stage, where hundreds of men gathered each day to hear inspiring speeches and testimonials.

Photo caption: When they were dating, Paul told Liesl he had been sexually abused as a child and that made it hard for him to be in healthy relationships. He said he understood if she wanted to leave. Liesl stayed. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Marc watched from the edge of the stage as his friend picked up the mic. He looked like a nervous wreck.

“When I was younger,” Paul began, “I was sexually assaulted.”

The buzz and murmuring in the crowd stopped. Paul paused a moment, choking up. Someone shouted his name. Then everyone was applauding, urging him on.

Paul took a breath and continued. For the next 10 minutes, Marc and the rest of the men watched as the suffering Paul had endured alone for decades spilled out on stage.

He talked about the shame he felt. “I didn’t know any better. I was just a dumb kid, right?”

He talked about feeling alone. “You don’t have anybody to turn to in the midst of that struggle.”  

And, finally, he implored anyone who’d been abused to share their story. “Because if you don’t, you will be me, 39 years old and bearing that weight for that amount of time. And it’s just going to haunt you.”

Marc stood with everyone else and cheered as Paul walked off. When it was over, Marc noticed that some men in the crowd, maybe two dozen or more, lingered around the stage, talking quietly among themselves.

Paul Neyer, at a camp sponsored by Crossroads Church in 2018

… Because if you don’t [share your story], you will be me, 39 years old and bearing that weight for that amount of time. And it’s just going to haunt you.

He realized they were talking about sexual abuse, but not just about Paul. Some said it happened to someone they knew, years ago, when they were kids.

Some said it happened to them.

Marc watched and listened. And he kept thinking, there are so many.

Suffering in Secret

In the summer of 2019, during a party at his parents’ house, Paul pulled aside his father and said he needed to talk to the family.

His dad, Dan Neyer, rounded up his wife, Chris, and Paul’s sister, Christy, and they headed to the garage for some privacy. Paul got right to the point. He told them about Geoff Drew and what he’d done to him at St. Jude. He said charges could be filed soon.

The news hit hard. In the days and weeks that followed, Dan kept replaying Paul’s childhood in his mind. How could he have missed this? How could he not know his son, the little boy they called “PJ,” was suffering all those years?

Dan and Paul were close. Dan coached his son’s baseball and basketball teams when he was growing up. They played golf together. He told Paul many times he could talk to him about anything, anytime.

Photo caption: Dan Neyer wrote a letter to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, saying the church and school failed his son, Paul, and that Paul had done more to protect children by reporting the Rev. Geoff Drew to authorities than church officials ever did. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

But as Paul moved into middle school and his teens, he talked less and acted out more. He ran away a few times, though never far and only for a day or two. He broke into a car once with another kid and stole a cassette player. That was as bad as it got.

Dan and Chris took the change in Paul’s behavior as a teenager seriously. They even sent him to see a priest they knew for a few counseling sessions, thinking, as lifelong Catholics, that hearing from a respected figure in the church might help get him on track.

Looking back, after he’d learned about Drew, Dan wondered what Paul must have thought about that.

Over time, Paul seemed to move past his childhood problems. He graduated high school, got married, held down a good job. Dan never guessed there might be something else weighing on his son.

“I sure wish you’d have told mom and I about this,” he said to Paul, not long after their conversation at the party.

“I don’t know why I didn’t,” Paul said.

Dan told his wife they shouldn’t punish themselves for not knowing what Drew was doing to their son so long ago. Thousands of good, attentive parents raise kids who become victims of predators. This was Drew’s fault. No one else’s.

Still, Dan couldn’t help second-guessing. One thing, in particular, nagged at him: When Paul was at St. Jude, he came home from school one day and said Drew had asked him a strange question.

Dan asked Paul to repeat the question, and he did: Are you sexually active?

Dan couldn’t believe it. Right away, he called Drew and the school office to complain. He said no one there had any business asking his son a question like that.

Years later, when police arrested Drew for raping his son, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said it had received no complaints about Drew’s behavior prior to 2013, long after he’d left St. Jude and entered the seminary. There was no record of Dan’s call.

Dan wrote a letter to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr after Drew’s arrest. He said in the letter that the church and school failed his son, and that Paul had done more to protect children by reporting Drew to authorities than church officials ever did.

“We are so proud of Paul,” he wrote.

When he finished writing, Dan saved the letter on his computer. But he never sent it.

He didn’t think it would make a difference if he did.

Anger and Activism

By the end of August 2019, Teresa Dinwiddie-Herrmann decided she needed to do something about what was going on at her church.

St. Ignatius of Loyola had been in an uproar for weeks, ever since Drew, the pastor, left suddenly in late July.

First, the archdiocese suspended Drew for inappropriate behavior with boys, such as rubbing shoulders and sending text messages. Then, church officials admitted they’d received similar complaints about Drew at his previous assignment, St. Maximilian of Kolbe, but didn’t share that information with parishioners when he moved to St. Ignatius.

Photo caption: Teresa Dinwiddie-Herrmann is a clergy abuse activist for more transparency in the church after the allegations against the Rev. Geoff Drew. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Finally, on Aug. 19, police arrested Drew on nine counts of raping a child 30 years earlier.

Teresa, who knew Paul through her husband’s work, didn’t know at the time he was the one who called police about Drew. His name wasn’t made public with the charges.

But she was grateful someone spoke up. She believed the problem was bigger than Drew, and that Catholics needed to demand more accountability from church leaders.

Paul’s case transformed Teresa’s life in a matter of weeks. She helped found the advocacy group Concerned Catholics. She circulated emails demanding more transparency from the church. She started writing press releases and doing interviews with local media.

As her activism grew in late 2019, her husband, Jason, warned her she might end up hating the church if she wasn’t careful. Teresa, who was raising two kids in the faith and had once considered becoming a nun, assured him there was no chance of that happening.

“I’m doing this to save this church,” she said.

Paul’s case reinforced her conviction that her work was necessary, especially in March 2020, when prosecutors filed a list of potential witnesses for Drew’s trial. Their investigation into Paul’s case turned up many more people with stories to tell about Drew.

Those people said Drew inappropriately touched and interacted with boys for decades, beginning in the early 1980s. They said he vacationed with young boys, allowed teens to drink alcohol and watch porn on a trip to Chicago, brought a teen boy to his room at the seminary while studying to become a priest and put his hands on boys so often at St. Rita’s School in Dayton that at least 40 students there signed a letter to the principal requesting that “Father Drew stop touching them.”

The witness from St. Rita, where Drew was pastor from 2005 to 2009, told prosecutors the boys were ordered to apologize to Drew because they were “being ridiculous.”

After learning details like these from the case, Teresa thought of Paul, who, by then, she knew was Drew’s accuser. She wondered how many kids Drew might have endangered if Paul hadn’t spoken out. She wondered how long this behavior would have gone on.

Teresa met other parents who were thinking of Paul, too, even though they’d never met him. She began collecting thank you notes from them, in hopes of some day sharing them with Paul. “We will be forever grateful for your bravery,” one wrote. “Thank you for protecting so many children.”

As Paul’s case was nearing an end, Teresa’s husband asked her again why she was putting so much effort into her advocacy work.

This time, her answer was different.

“I’m doing it to save the kids,” she said.

A Reckoning in Court

The Rev. Geoff Drew appears before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Leslie Ghiz to plead guilty to nine counts of rape. The Cincinnati priest was accused of raping an altar boy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cara Owsley/The Enquirer

Paul and Liesl took a seat in the Cincinnati courtroom and waited for Drew to arrive.

It was Dec. 2, 2021, the day of Drew’s sentencing. He agreed to a plea deal that would send him to prison for seven years, minus the two he’d already spent in jail awaiting trial.

Paul Neyer:

The truth is… no amount of time will make up for the child inside that you murdered.

Paul wanted Drew to get more time, but he also wanted the case to be over. He believed his family had been through enough.

Drew stepped into the courtroom wearing a black coat and tie. A sheriff’s deputy, holding his arm, guided Drew to a spot directly in front of Common Pleas Judge Leslie Ghiz.

The judge asked if Paul had anything to say.

Paul stood, Liesl at his side. He said Drew ruined his life. He said the abuse left him depressed, confused and broken. He said his childhood died the day Drew began abusing him.

“The truth is,” Paul said, “no amount of time will make up for the child inside that you murdered.”

Drew kept his back to Paul as he spoke, facing the judge. When he finished, Ghiz told Drew he was lucky he took the plea deal. If he’d been convicted at trial, the judge said, she’d have sentenced him to life in prison.

“All right,” she said, “get him out of here.”

Finding His Voice

Paul Neyer decided to come forward with abuse allegations against the Rev. Geoff Drew almost 30 years after he was abused. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Paul stood before the Ohio Senate’s judiciary committee on May 31, 2022, holding a school photo of himself from his days at St. Jude.

He’s 8 years old in the photo, about a year before Drew began abusing him. He’s wearing a dark plaid shirt. His sandy-colored hair is unruly. And his smile is just a little crooked, as if the photographer snapped the picture a split second before Paul was ready.

“This is a picture of me,” Paul said, moving the photo from side to side so all the senators on the committee could see it. “This is the kid I’m fighting for.”

It had been six months since Paul last stood in a room like this, fighting for that same kid at Drew’s sentencing.

Paul Neyer:

As I grew up, I was plagued with feelings of disgust, self-hatred and the overwhelming feeling of being unworthy. … It took almost 30 years to tell another I was raped.

Since that day, Paul had searched for ways to turn his pain into something useful. He wanted to make a difference. That’s why he was here on this day, testifying in Columbus before a Senate committee.

Along with other abuse survivors, Paul urged the senators to extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse, allowing more time for young victims to come forward, as he did, years after the abuse.

“As I grew up, I was plagued with feelings of disgust, self-hatred and the overwhelming feeling of being unworthy,” he said. “It took almost 30 years to tell another I was raped.”

Near the end of his testimony, Paul held up his grade school photo once more, close to his face. Despite his beard and shaved head, despite all the years between them, the resemblance between the man and the boy was unmistakable.

The boy had remained silent, Paul said, because he was broken. He believed he was unworthy and unloved.

But the man found his voice. He shared his secret. And when he finished his testimony and drove home at the end of the day, Paul returned to a wife, to friends and family, to a community filled with people who knew his story.

They did not push him away, as he feared they would for so many years.

They pulled him closer.

Photo caption: Dan Neyer holds a family portrait taken at his daughter’s graduation in 2000. From left, his wife, Chris; his son, Paul; and daughter, Kristy. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer