A Year Later, Mother Waits for Action on Abusive Priest

By Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register
May 30, 2003

It's been a year, and Mary Polich's strength is in short supply, and so is her optimism. An old cancer returned. Doctors say she has four years left. Her husband had bypass surgery.

And she's been waiting for the Des Moines Catholic Diocese to mend a hole in her heart caused by an abusive priest she blames for her son's suicide.

It was last May 12 that Polich broke her silence about the sexual abuse of her son, Tommie Pierick, by Father Albert Wilwerding. It began when he was in grade school at All Saints Church, where Wilwerding was a priest. Tommie led a tormented life before killing himself in 1985 at age 32. On one such attempt, he told his mother about Wilwerding.

Polich said the late Bishop Maurice Dingman was also told about it by Tommie and Tommie's uncle, a former priest. Today the diocese says it has no record of that. But in 1985 it quietly sent Wilwerding away to a treatment center for abusive priests, where he remains. It claimed to have acted on an unspecific, anonymous complaint.

After Tommie's story appeared in the Register last May, amid a spate of national priest-abuse claims, Bishop Joseph Charron publicly apologized and promised changes. Charron flew Polich from Texas, where she lives, to meet with him last August, and in December to appear before the diocese's new Allegation Review Committee.

"Wilwerding deserves to be punished," she told them. "After all the damage and evil created by
Wilwerding, he is still a priest. He deserves to be defrocked.... He is living in beautiful surroundings being cared for by his pension. Our son is silenced by death."

Today she says: "I fail to see any change at all in policy regarding what special attention needs to be paid to the victim"

The panel concluded that Wilwerding had abused children while serving as a priest, according to diocese spokesman Tom Chapman, though that has yet to be announced in the diocese newspaper.

Chapman says any recommendation on "defrocking" Wilwerding must be sent to the Vatican, but the committee will do so only after reviewing every old abuse claim.

And the diocese turned down Polich's request for financial compensation after batting it between the bishop and the panel. "It's certainly true that damage has been done to victims and survivors," said Chapman. As for making them whole, "The best way we know how is with counseling and working with them in other ways."

Those who feel harmed by the diocese itself, however, may not want counseling from the same institution.

One final thing Polich had requested was that a room in Tommie's name be set up at a treatment center for child physical- and sexual-abuse victims. The diocese offered to contribute $10,000 toward a treatment program or room at Blank Children's Hospital on behalf of all victims. "We can't tell Blank Hospital to name anything for anybody," says Chapman.

It's not what Polich had in mind.

But the diocese has agreed to a request from Tommie's sister, Jane Newlin, for a face-to-face meeting with Wilwerding, which she hopes will bring her closure.

Since Tommie's story was published, others have gone public with claims of being abused by Wilwerding or other priests. One was Jeff Reese, a former classmate of Tommie's. He hasn't asked the diocese for anything but accuses it of stalling until she dies: "They've created a board. Now they're going to talk to the pope. It's all window-dressing. The only time they've responded to anything was when it was in the paper."

He thinks Wilwerding should be both defrocked and prosecuted. "Just because the man was a priest, he's not in jail," he said. This was a crime that's been covered up. He's been shipped from place to place. He shouldn't have any retirement fund.... He should be on a sex offender list and have to report to somebody."

David Clohessy is national director of SNAP, a Chicago-based support group for victims of priest abuse. "Historically the whole policy of deny, minimize, stonewall, ignore has worked," he says. In the past 1 1/2 years, on the advice of insurers and public-relations people, he says most dioceses rewrote policies and launched or expanded lay review boards, but almost nothing has changed.

Many settlements have been paid out, but only after lawsuits were filed. And though church officials like to say statutes of limitations for criminal charges have lapsed, abusive priests have been successfully prosecuted through legal loopholes, he says. "If the bishop were truly a shepherd, he would stand up in every parish where his priests were, and tell people, 'It is your Christian duty to come forward and tell law enforcement what you know.'"

The lower the expectation, the less chance of disappointment. For Newlin, telling Tommie's story hasn't been in vain because it enabled other victims to come forward.

And because, finally, the diocese acknowledged Wilwerding was an abuser.

"I felt this was Tommie's victory," she says.

REKHA BASU can be reached at or (515) 284-8584.


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