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Survivor Narratives

Arthur W. Niemeyer

“I want the whole world to know what he did to me.” That’s what “Luke” told the Attorney General’s investigators about Father Arthur Niemeyer, who sexually abused him in the late 1970s when he was barely a teenager. “I hope it never happens again to anyone else,” Luke says. In fact, it never had to happen at all—if only the Diocese of Belleville had taken seriously an earlier report it received of Niemeyer’s deviant interest in children.

It was 1977, and Luke’s brother had been admitted to Saint Joseph’s hospital in Breese for an appendectomy. One day, while Luke was visiting, a priest stopped by his brother’s room. It was Niemeyer, who was serving as the hospital’s chaplain. The priest quickly took an interest in Luke. He began to invite the boy out for pizza and ice cream—and then camping trips. Luke’s parents were happy to let their son spend time with such a distinguished man. They even allowed Luke to take a two-week trip with Niemeyer to the Smoky Mountains.

Niemeyer sometimes asked Luke to invite other children with them when they went camping. Luke recalls feeling a little “jealous” during one of those trips when he noticed the priest was especially “enamored” of another boy. Looking back, Luke recognizes this was all part of Niemeyer’s grooming process.

“I had a flashback to a time I was with my friends and saw two neighborhood dogs humping,” Luke explains. “I realized that was what Father was doing to me. I was the bottom dog.”

A year passed, and Luke was now a freshman in high school. It was his dream to make the basketball team, and Niemeyer knew it. One night, the priest took Luke to his house nestled among the cornfields near the hospital. He said he had learned a game in seminary that would help Luke become stronger for basketball. To play, they had to strip to their underwear and then lay side-by-side on the floor; at the count of three, they would turn to face each other and then try to pin the other down. Luke agreed to give the game a shot. “He was a priest,” Luke explains. “I believed everything he said.”

Luke noticed something different about Niemeyer as soon as they started “playing” the game. He was aggressive and violent; he quickly overpowered the boy and held him down by the wrists. It hurt. Then, Niemeyer pressed his body against Luke’s and forced the boy’s legs apart. “I didn’t know what was happening,” Luke recalls. “I thought, he won the game. Why is he still laying on top of me?” Then, Niemeyer thrust his penis into the boy. “I had a flashback to a time I was with my friends and saw two neighborhood dogs humping,” Luke explains. “I realized that was what Father was doing to me. I was the bottom dog.”

But once wasn’t enough for Niemeyer. As soon as he was done, he told Luke they were going to play another round. The priest counted to three and then, Luke remembers, “as violently as he could, climbed on top of me, pinned me down, and humped me. I felt helpless and powerless.” As soon as it was over, it happened again. And again and again and again. The “game” continued seemingly forever. Finally, Niemeyer got up, got dressed, and told Luke they were going to Pizza Hut—and the boy could drive them there in the priest’s car.

On the way into town, Niemeyer instructed Luke not to tell anyone what had just happened. “No one will believe you,” the priest insisted, “and you’ll go to hell.” And if Luke did tell on him, Niemeyer warned, he would tell on Luke too—for driving his car without a license.

The priest’s threats worked as intended. Luke never told anyone—not until many years had passed and he was an adult. Instead, the boy suffered alone. And the pain continues to this day. As a result of Niemeyer’s abuse, Luke has struggled with alcohol, anxiety, and feelings of unworthiness. He finds it difficult to trust and still has nightmares about the priest who took his innocence. “I don’t want to think about him anymore,” Luke says, “but I can’t make it go away.”

It didn’t have to be this way. Niemeyer could have been stopped in his tracks—exposed as a child predator—long before the day in 1977 he first set eyes on Luke in that hospital room in Breese. In 1966, when Niemeyer was the director of Saint John’s orphanage in Shiloh, the mother superior and a seminarian house parent approached Bishop Albert Zuroweste to report their suspicions Niemeyer was sexually abusing grade-school boys. All the bishop did, though, was transfer Niemeyer to a new assignment in another parish. Years later, the seminarian told the Belleville News-Democrat “it seemed like the bishop was sweeping allegations under the rug without holding Niemeyer accountable. ‘It kind of blew my mind,’ he said.”

The diocese’s file on Niemeyer sheds no light on Bishop Zuroweste’s reasoning. But it does contain evidence of two other child sex abuse allegations reported to the church. One survivor, who came forward in 1987, said Niemeyer forced him to play an inappropriate “game” while he was hospitalized; the other, who came forward in 1993, said the same. The details they shared about the game are similar to what Luke experienced. It seems Niemeyer had a routine.

Despite this, the diocese did not publicly identify Niemeyer as a child sex abuser until June 2020. It couldn’t be done, diocesan officials insisted; even if the allegations were credible, Niemeyer was dead when they came in. But after the Attorney General’s investigators pushed back on this reasoning, the diocese relented and added Niemeyer to its public list.

That came as a great relief to Luke. It has long been his hope that Niemeyer would be exposed for who he is—a child sex abuser who preyed on young boys throughout southern Illinois. And because of Luke’s courage to share his experience, the truth is finally known.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*