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.