The Power of Forgiveness

By Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register [Iowa]
October 3, 2004

Jane Newlin couldn't explain the sadness that washed over her when she heard the priest who abused her brother had died.

Can you grieve for a man who stole your little sibling's childhood, exploited the family's trust and cost you your own relationship with your church?

Or was she crying because the one living connection to her brother's tortured secrets was taking them with him to his grave?

Whatever the case, after more than a decade chasing down the Rev. Albert Wilwerding, Newlin was finally ready to let him go. She had gotten something she desperately needed from him: a face-to-face apology.Wilwerding molested Newlin's brother, Tommie Pierick, beginning when Tommie was 12 and Wilwerding was associate pastor at All Saints Church in Des Moines, where the family worshipped. It went on through high school. Tommie killed himself in 1985 at age 32, after several attempts. Before he did, he told his mother of the abuse and how it had ruined his life.

It took nine years from the time Newlin first approached the Des Moines Catholic diocese in 1993 to get acknowledgement of her brother's abuse. It came after she went public. Only then did she learn that the priest was quietly spirited away to a treatment facility for abusive priests the same year Tommie died,Wilwerding was still living at one when he died last week. An application to defrock him was awaiting Vatican action. But Newlin needed one more thing to happen before she could put it to rest: to face Wilwerding and tell him the impact his actions had on her and her family.

That was what Newlin asked for when she appeared before the diocese's sexual-abuse review committee.

"Some people won't understand this," she said in an interview last week, "but I wanted to feel better and feel resolved, and I wanted him to get some resolution."So an extraordinary meeting quietly took place this summer, just months before Wilwerding died. It took two years of preparation on both sides.

They met at the retreat center outside St. Louis. Newlin was accompanied by victim advocates Jo Mulvihill of Polk County Victim Services, who is on the diocese review committee, and Betty Brown, who runs restorative-justice programs at the Iowa Department of Corrections.

For two hours, Newlin looked Wilwerding in the eye and told him what he had done: "I got to tell him how he had hurt my family, and how he had hurt my mother, and how I didn't think my mother would ever heal." She asked questions. He gave answers, took responsibility, said he was sorry and offered to do anything she wanted. He said he hadn't known about Tommie's suicide until it was in the paper two years ago."Whether he was coached I don't know," Newlin says, "but he said what I needed to hear."

How do you sit across from someone like that and not completely lose it? Such meetings can leave victims even more traumatized, says Mulvihill. That's why the restorative-justice process isn't used much for sex-abuse cases.

But Newlin didn't want to carry her anger anymore.

Jeff Reese still carries his. A classmate of Tommie's, Jeff said he was a victim of Wilwerding on two occasions. On Sept. 29, Reese learned that Bishop Joseph Charron would be presiding at Wilwerding's funeral on Oct. 2. He was so outraged and insulted that he had to take the day off.Then there's Newlin's other brother, Jim, who sued Wilwerding, the Des Moines Diocese and All Saints Church this year, alleging Wilwerding had abused him first, beginning in 1964 , but turned to Tommie when Jim wouldn't take it anymore. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

For Newlin, closure came a different way, 11 years after she approached the diocese: through forgiveness. She forgave Wilwerding. It was the end of her journey. She wasn't closing the door on Tommie, but opening the door to a life she hasn't let herself fully live, until now.


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