A Priest's Sin, a Family's Agony

By Jim Schaefer, Patricia Montemurri and Alexa Capeloto
Detroit Free Press
March 24, 2002

Detroit — Seventy-two hours.

That's how he refers to it. Not three days or a long weekend, but 72 hours.

That is his label to describe the lowest point in what he calls a long series of sexual molestations by a Catholic priest.

Tom Paciorek has been many things over the years: star athlete at St. Ladislaus High School in Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit; All-Star pro baseball player; and, he says now, a victim of sexual abuse by the clergy. In his first public comments about the alleged abuse, Paciorek said he was repeatedly violated by the Rev. Gerald Shirilla, who was removed this week from St. Mary Catholic Church in Alpena, Mich. Shirilla has not been charged with a crime, but the Archdiocese of Detroit determined nine years ago there was credible evidence that he had sexually abused teenage boys.

Shirilla, 63, has not responded to repeated requests for comment. His attorney, Michael Smith, said the priest has done nothing that would make him unfit for ministry.

Paciorek sees it differently.

"I was molested by him for a period of four years," Paciorek, 55, said this week in Kissimmee, Fla., where he is covering the Atlanta Braves training camp for Fox SportsNet. "I would refer to them as attacks. I would say there was at least a hundred of them."

The worst, he says, came at age 16, in the summer before Paciorek started his senior year at St. Ladislaus. Shirilla, a family friend, asked for and got permission from Paciorek's unwitting parents to have Tom spend the weekend at his family's home.

"For 72 hours, I felt like I was under constant attack," Paciorek said. "It was relentless. I mean, I felt like I was a prisoner at his house. "I remember saying in a moment of silence, when I maybe slept just a couple of hours, 'God, is this ever going to end? When is it ever going to end?' " Paciorek isn't alone. In new public disclosures this week, three of his brothers say they, too, were molested by Shirilla, picked off one by one during the 1960s.

In a series of interviews with , the Pacioreks, one of Detroit's best-known sports families, described in detail how it began, how they kept it secret even from each other, and how alarmed they were to discover that Shirilla had landed a new job last fall at a new parish.

Some of their allegations date back 40 years. But, they say, the memories are as vivid as ever.

In the 1960s and '70s, the Paciorek boys, who grew up just outside Hamtramck on Detroit's east side, had unparalleled athletic success in multiple sports, beginning with John at St. Lad's and ending with Jim at Orchard Lake St. Mary. John, Tom and Jim Paciorek all had careers in Major League Baseball. Mike played in the minors.

In 1961, John, the oldest, was a senior being recruited by pro scouts when he met a new, energetic St. Lad's teacher named Gerald Shirilla.

Shirilla was in his early 20s, and he had returned to his alma mater to teach religion and biology. In 1962, he would leave to enter Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and, eventually, the priesthood. Until then, Shirilla taught and headed the glee club at St. Lad's. John and Tom were members.

John said Shirilla showed an interest in his academic promise, not just his athletic skills.

"I was the first contact with him," said John, now a physical education teacher at a private elementary school in the Los Angeles area. "He was really an outstanding professional teacher. He was the first person to motivate me academically."

John said Shirilla helped him prepare applications for college, and checked his term papers.

But later, Shirilla also made unwanted overtures, John said. He recalled a day on the Shirilla family's back porch when a back rub turned into an uncomfortable sexual advance. John, a strapping young man, said he forced the rotund Shirilla to stop.

After graduating in 1962, John signed a pro baseball contract. His short career has since become a trivia question. He played one game in the majors, on the last day of the 1963 season for the expansion Houston Colt .45s. His distinction is a perfect batting average, courtesy of a 3-for-3 performance in that game. He never played again after back surgery.

Younger brother Tom said that when John left St. Lad's, Shirilla turned to him. The first incident happened in that summer of '62, before Tom started his junior year, he said. Shirilla volunteered his time and car to help Tom earn his driver's license.

They practiced on the roads of Belle Isle, with Tom at the wheel and Shirilla riding shotgun. At one point as Tom steered the car along a road, Shirilla "put his hand on my leg," Paciorek said. "Then he fondled my genitals, causing an erection. He says, 'That's OK, John liked it.' " As Paciorek recounted this story Wednesday in his hotel room near Walt Disney World in Florida, he paused and choked back tears. He said that after the incident, he didn't know what to do.

"When you're a kid and you're not able to articulate, who's going to believe you?" he asked. "The church back then was so powerful, there's nothing that a kid could do. " Over time, the molestations continued, Tom said. They kept on after Shirilla left the high school to enter Sacred Heart Seminary, he said. By then, speaking out became more difficult.

"When you grew up in that time in a strict Catholic atmosphere, it was pretty much known that anybody who wore a habit or a cloak represented Jesus on Earth. You were powerless."

On the surface, Tom was excelling in life. But underneath, he was confused and tormented.

Shirilla would find ways to be alone with him, he said. He had the trust of Paciorek's devout parents. Shirilla would come by in his car to visit or pick Tom up and take him to Sacred Heart. There, Shirilla would find a private room and suggest that he give him a back rub, Tom said. That's how the molestations always began, he said.

"It started off, 'I'll give you this massage,' " he said. "And all of a sudden it led down your legs and then it was at your genitals."

Tom said he dreaded the visits with the seminarian, but felt helpless to stop them.

"He'd put me up against a wall or something and try and kiss me, fondle my genitals and it just got to the point where it was almost expected. I got to the point of absolute despair," he said. "I couldn't tell anybody because of all the shame and guilt and humiliation. I just figured, maybe it will end. When I got home at night after being dropped off, I can remember specifically that he had just inserted his finger in my rectum. I remember getting out of the car and having him drive away and thinking, how sick is this?" Today, Tom Paciorek seems almost apologetic for not fighting back.

"There were times, so many times, I just wanted to say. 'Listen, just leave me alone. Get away from me.' I rehearsed it and rehearsed it."

One day in the seminary, Paciorek summoned the resolve.

"I said, 'Gerry, I've had enough of this shit.' I threw him up against the wall. He literally went down like he was having a heart attack, to make me feel guilty about pushing him and rejecting him. And then all of a sudden, it was right back to the old mold."

It was a convincing performance, he said.

Anytime Paciorek was hesitant to submit, "tears would start welling up and he'd start this unbelievable sobbing and wailing until he got what he wanted."

Tom said the low point of his despair came in the summer before his senior year, when Shirilla's parents left town for the weekend. He asked Tom's parents whether the boy could spend the weekend at the Shirilla home.

Tom was 16.

"When I heard my parents say yes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, what is going to happen to me?' " At one point during those 72 hours, Paciorek said, he wanted to die.

The abuse continued until after Tom graduated and left town for the University of Houston on a football scholarship, he said. Still, Paciorek saw Shirilla since then. Shirilla presided over Paciorek's wedding when Tom was 22.

Shirilla suggested that he officiate, Tom said. Today, he cannot explain why those meetings happened in light of his abuse claims. He said he seemed to be wandering aimlessly through life.

For more than 20 years, Tom told no one. Not the police, and not the archdiocese. Despite a long and successful baseball career, Paciorek said he suffered emotionally, and still has problems with trust and intimacy. He declined to offer details. He separated from his wife 11 years ago.

He sought counseling 15 years ago "after years of doing things I couldn't explain."

He still sees a therapist weekly, and now lives alone in Atlanta. He followed baseball with a career in broadcasting and has called games for the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners. This year, he is working Braves games and hopes to fill in on about 20 Detroit Tigers television broadcasts.

None of the Paciorek brothers shared their stories with each other until the early 1980s, when Michael started making comments about Shirilla.

The fourth of the five brothers, Mike said he began joking about it.

"But then I told them what he used to do to me. And all of a sudden, it went from being funny to being not so funny," said Mike, now 47. "I first became a victim of his when I was 8, 9 or 10 years old."

As he did with some of the other brothers, Shirilla took Mike to Big Boy and bought triple-decker burgers with fries and milkshakes, Mike said. In the car, Mike said, Shirilla would tickle or grope him and suddenly remember he needed to stop at the seminary.

"He would take me up to his room and lock the doors, and have me take my clothes off," Mike said. Shirilla would tell him "there's nothing wrong with this. Your brothers used to love this.. . . You don't have to tell anybody this. You can keep this a secret."

Bobby Paciorek, now 51, and the third of the five brothers, related similar memories of abuse. He said it began when he was in seventh or eighth grade.

After Mike began talking, the stories began falling from some brothers' mouths like dominoes. Tom held out for a long time.

"When they said it, it was like a shock to me, the lights all went out," he said. "I was pretty much in denial at that point. I had logged it off in some back crater of my mind."

But his brothers kept after him, and he finally revealed it, shared the details and sought help.

He was devastated when he heard his younger brothers recount their experiences. Only the youngest, Jim, now 41, said he was not molested by Shirilla.

"I still feel bad that I didn't tell them, that I didn't warn them," Tom said. "I've apologized to them, because you feel for your brothers like your own children. How awful it would be for them to go through something like that."

Similarly, John, the oldest, feels guilty for not warning Tom.

In 1993, Declan DeMeyer, a member of another Catholic family that Shirilla befriended, unsuccessfully sued Shirilla and the archdiocese, alleging similar claims of abuse. Like the Pacioreks, several brothers in the DeMeyer family say Shirilla molested them. But DeMeyer's case was dismissed because it wasn't filed before the statute of limitations expired.

Tom's sister found out about the lawsuit and told him, and he decided to act. He called DeMeyer's lawyer to offer to testify against Shirilla, and he called the archdiocese to lodge a complaint. Tom said he was told to speak with Msgr. Walter Hurley.

"He never got to any pertinent questions. Never asked me any specifics," he said. "I pretty much thought, these are deaf ears."

Hurley said Thursday he doesn't remember the details of Tom Paciorek's call, but the complaint was taken seriously.

Based on a combination of complaints from DeMeyer, Tom Paciorek and some former altar boys, the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1993 ordered Shirilla to a treatment facility in Maryland, where he received a year of counseling and drug therapy. They told him he was barred from active ministry and asked him to leave the priesthood. He did not, and resurfaced in Alpena in August.

Tom said he kept his silence because he thought Shirilla was no longer an active priest.

Paciorek was shocked to read in the Detroit Free Press this month that Shirilla was hired in Alpena. The priest's whereabouts before taking that job are unclear. He was discharged from the treatment facility in 1994 and the archdiocese will not comment on his whereabouts since then.

Paciorek decided after contact from the newspaper that he had to go public to, in his words, protect other children.

Tom said he and his brothers hold no hatred. Tom wants his grandchildren to go to Catholic schools. He is still a believer — in God and in the church.

"This is no conspiracy. This is truth. I'm going to live in this truth, and we're going to do the right thing. I start thinking about children, and I just don't want anybody to have to go through what we did, my brothers and I."

He said it has taken him years to come to these terms. At his hotel on Wednesday, his eyes welled with tears.

"Today as I was jogging, it came to me. It's time. It's going to end. And it's going to end with this," he said. "I just felt like a beam of light going through me telling me it's going to be OK. It took close to 40 years, but I felt like this is going to pass."


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