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Survivor Narratives

Walter M. Weerts

Shortly after opening the clergy abuse hotline, the Attorney General’s investigators became familiar with the name of Father Walter Weerts. The three survivors who reached out all had similar experiences. Weerts first befriended their parents, all of whom were devout Catholics. Then he would buy the boys gifts and take them to fancy restaurants in his Mercedes—and eventually on trips in his private plane. “Little did you know you were on a date,” one of his survivors reflects today.

The Diocese of Springfield’s files show both Bishop William O’Connor and Bishop Joseph McNicholas knew Weerts was sexually abusing young boys as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. Apparently because of those allegations, the diocese reassigned Weerts to new parishes at least three times. This simply allowed Weerts to rack up more victims—he sexually abused approximately 20 young boys before he was criminally charged in 1985. Even then, the diocese praised him: “With the exception of the matters for which he is under indictment,” it said, Weerts’s behavior has been “of the very best.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Weerts always tried to get “Bruce” alone. The priest would approach the young altar server at Saint Ambrose in Godfrey when he was preparing the wine and water for early morning mass. It was the early 1960s, and Bruce was around 11 years old. Weerts often put Bruce on his lap and tickled him—and that would lead to the priest running his hands up the boy’s legs and fondling him. As Bruce put it, “My reputation was as Father Weerts’s boy.”

Bruce remembers one trip in particular. Weerts told Bruce’s parents he was taking the boy to meet his own parents. But when they arrived, no one was home. Bruce believes the priest had him spend the night there anyway—and maybe even the whole weekend. He doesn’t recall what Weerts did to him on this trip but is sure there was abuse of some sort.

Bruce’s parents eventually became aware Weerts was sexually abusing their son. After receiving several warning calls about Weerts from other parents, Bruce’s father drove to the diocese’s headquarters and demanded to see the bishop. His father told the bishop what Weerts had done to Bruce and warned, “If you don’t do something, I’m going to kill him.” As a result, Bruce recalls, “Weerts was here today, gone tomorrow, with no explanation given.”

As Bruce put it, "My reputation was as Father Weerts's boy."

Bruce never told anyone about the abuse while it was happening. He felt embarrassed and thought he had done something wrong. He worried no one would believe him because priests were held “on a pedestal.” Bruce says the abuse affected his “thinking about the church.” “I don’t consider myself a great Catholic,” he explains, “and I don’t have a positive attitude about the church.”

Bruce says it is “absolutely meaningful” to see Weerts listed on the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests. “I knew what he did was wrong,” Bruce says. And as with many survivors, Bruce was grateful for the opportunity to relay his experience. “This has helped me,” he told the Attorney General’s investigators.

Like Bruce, “Phil” was as an altar server and also sang in the church choir at Saint Thomas the Apostle in Decatur, where Weerts ministered starting in 1967. The abuse began shortly after Weerts arrived, when Phil was 14 years old.

Bruce says it is “absolutely meaningful” to see Weerts listed on the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests, “I knew what he did was wrong,” Bruce says.

Suspecting nothing but good intentions, Phil was happy to accept Weerts’s invitation to accompany the priest to Granite City to help with his property. Weerts even promised to pay for Phil’s meals. But the priest was visibly upset when he arrived at Phil’s home to pick him up and found the boy had invited a friend to join them. Weerts asked Phil to go again the following weekend. This time, however, he instructed Phil it would be just the two of them—and, the priest said, he would pay the boy $100 for his troubles.

The abuse began when they took a break for lunch on the second trip. Weerts handed Phil a cup with a straw and told him to take a sip. Phil remarked that the drink had a funny taste, but Weerts dismissed the boy’s comment, noting Granite City had a “water problem.” The next thing Phil remembers is waking up on a blanket wearing nothing below the waist. His shoes, pants, and underwear were off and he had a terrible pain in his buttocks. When he started to move, he felt a sticky substance down his leg. He was so young at the time that he didn’t know exactly what had happened. Today, Phil is clear about it: “He raped me. He sodomized me.” Phil believes Weerts probably drugged him or gave him alcohol.

Weerts told Phil no one would believe him about what happened in Granite City. Phil thought Weerts was right about that. “We were taught that priests, nuns, monsignors, bishops, the pope were all up on a pedestal,” Phil explains. “We were taught to show them great respect and do what they tell you.”

At that point, Weerts began to fondle Rob and asked for oral sex. “Other boys kiss my dick,” he said. “You should too.”

Weerts abused Phil again a few weeks later at a Boy Scouts meeting. Towards the end of the meeting, the priest told the boy he needed to talk to him. Once they were alone, Weerts pulled down his pants and told Phil he was going to put his penis in the boy’s mouth. Phil refused. So Weerts forced Phil to pull down his pants and underwear down and “sodomized him” again. Phil remembers this as the most painful thing he had ever experienced. He had nightmares from that day forward; he recalls he would “wake up frightened to death.”

Between 1968 and 1971, there was a lull in the abuse directed at Phil. But in 1971, while Phil was on a senior retreat with his high school, Weerts wandered into the kitchen, which Phil had been cleaning, and slammed the door shut. The priest threatened the boy, “You’re not getting out of here.” He pulled down his pants and his underwear and commanded Phil to suck his penis. Again, Phil refused. And again, Phil recalls, “Weerts raped and sodomized me. It was so rough that I bled really bad. I took my underwear to the fire to burn it.”

Phil knows Weerts was abusing four or five other boys at the time. When he spotted Weerts’s car at one of those boys’ houses, Phil knew what was going on. “We were afraid,” Phil remembers. “We didn’t know what he would do to us.”

The Diocese of Springfield says it didn’t learn of Weerts’s sexual abuse of young boys until he was criminally charged in 1985. But its own files show otherwise.

Nevertheless, the boys decided to report Weerts to the police. On the day they planned to make the report, all but one of the boys gathered together. They waited for the final boy, but he never showed. That put an end to the boys’ plan. They were “still intimidated” by what Weerts told them, and they convinced themselves that no one would believe them.

After 53 years “of being tortured and living in a hell of dreams,” Phil was finally ready to share his experience with the Attorney General’s investigators. Phil has had a hard life. His marriage ended in divorce, at least in part due to problems with intimacy stemming from the abuse he endured. And Phil says he is not alone. All the boys Weerts abused in the parish experienced nightmares and other anxieties. Phil dealt with his own anxieties by drinking.

The diocese offered counseling, which Phil accepted. But the diocese backtracked and refused, without explanation, to pay any bills after an initial quarterly invoice—even after receiving a letter from Phil’s therapist attesting to the impact of the abuse and the importance of therapy for Phil’s recovery. The ordeal has left Phil with significant medical debt he is unable to afford. This has compounded the trauma and anxiety Phil has experienced.

“Rob” is the third survivor of Weerts’s abuse who reached out to the Attorney General’s investigators. He says his mother taught him “if you can trust anyone, you can trust a priest.” His two older brothers were altar servers at Sacred Heart in Villa Grove, and Rob thought it looked pretty cool. So he became an altar server himself around 1972, when he was in fifth grade.

Shortly after Weerts arrived at Sacred Heart, he asked Rob’s mother if the boy could help him with some work at the parish. And then the priest asked Rob to work at his property in Granite City—just as he had done to Phil a few years earlier. Rob helped Weerts remove and install insulation all day. As Rob showered, Weerts kept opening the door to look him over. After dinner, Weerts showed Rob where they would be sleeping. There was only one bed.

Even so, the diocesan priest continued to try to talk the boy’s parents out of pursuing legal action. “I spoke about the harm and scandal to the Church, the parish and their own children,” he assured the bishop, “but to no avail. I don’t know how to dissuade them.”

Later that night, as they lay together in the same bed, Weerts started talking. “Mothers send their boys to me so they can become fully alive,” the priest explained to Rob. “This is part of life. I will help you to become a good lover and husband.” Weerts then forced Rob to take off his shirt. Rob complied. At that point, Weerts began to fondle Rob and asked for oral sex. “Other boys kiss my dick,” he said. “You should too.”

That was the first of many assaults. Rob says he was abused one or two times a month for the next eight years or so. He estimates he was abused a total of 50 to 100 times. Every now and then, Weerts would tell him another boy was a good lover in an effort to validate what he was doing. Weerts also was quick to lose his temper. It all took a significant toll on Rob’s life. He felt depressed. He started drinking and smoking weed. He was constantly in trouble. And his grades began to suffer.

Even long after the abuse ended, Rob still suffers the long-term consequences. Rob says the abuse “ruined me mentally, physically and spiritually.” He has been in therapy for a decade, grappling with “suicide-type feelings.”

The Diocese of Springfield says it didn’t learn of Weerts’s sexual abuse of young boys until he was criminally charged in 1985. But its own files show otherwise. The disgraced priest’s interest in children first came to the diocese’s attention in 1962—around the same time Weerts began abusing Bruce, and years before he would do the same to Phil and Rob. That year, Father Frank Westhoff—a child sex abuser himself whose own narrative appears elsewhere in this report—told Bishop O’Connor that Weerts was engaging in inappropriate activities with young boys. Decades after the fact, Westhoff discussed the incident with diocesan officials, who recorded his recollections in an internal 2003 memo. Westhoff said he had been “approached by parents who told him their son was doing strange things with Father Weerts, namely, wrestling. Father Westhoff said that was not strange but they replied that it happened in the nude.” Eight other families came forward the next week with similar complaints. Westhoff decided all this was sufficiently “strange” to warrant a meeting with the bishop. He brought with him a list of children who he thought might be at risk. But when Westhoff “told the Bishop about Father Weerts, the Bishop replied that Father Westhoff was just engaging in self-aggrandizement at the expense of the reputation of another priest. The Bishop simply refused to accept the list of names Father Westhoff had prepared and told him to take it home.”

Years later, the diocese received a second unheeded warning about Weerts. In 1978, when Weerts was assigned to Sacred Heart—and sexually abusing Rob—another boy’s parents told Bishop McNicholas they were considering filing criminal charges against the priest for taking “indecent liberties” with their young son. “Please don’t feel that we are making these accusations without much soul searching,” the boy’s parents wrote the bishop. “There are other families in this parish whom we feel have experienced similar problems with their older sons.” The parents explained: “We are concerned not only with [Weerts’s] mental health, but also with his future moral character. We will pursue this not only for our son, but for the other children that Father will come in contact with in the future. We are not seeking punishment or vengeance, but sincerely wish to see that the psychiatric care Father so desperately needs is made available to him.” The diocese did its best to avoid any meeting between the boy’s parents and the bishop. Meanwhile, the bishop accepted Weerts’s resignation from Sacred Heart and transferred him to Saint Mary of the Assumption in Sainte Marie and Saint Valentine in Bend.

The boy’s parents did not relent. In April 1979, they met with a diocesan priest, who summarized the discussion in a letter to Bishop McNicholas. “They expressed concern that Fr. Weerts is not well and are concerned that he is in a position where he could do harm to young people.” The priest told the parents that Weerts’s “position was temporary and he would be leaving his present assignment soon”; he also insisted “the Bishop is aware of Fr. Weerts’s needs, that he is watching the situation closely and is providing whatever he deems necessary on Fr. Weerts[’s] behalf.” But the parents “were not satisfied with that and said they felt it necessary to prosecute Fr. Weerts, if he was assigned again to a pastoral responsibility, because they do not think he is well and stable in these matters. They felt that if other parents had prosecuted earlier, the situation with their two boys [ ] would not have happened.”

Even so, the diocesan priest continued to try to talk the boy’s parents out of pursuing legal action. “I spoke about the harm and scandal to the Church, the parish and their own children,” he assured the bishop, “but to no avail. I don’t know how to dissuade them.” He wondered whether the bishop might want to meet with them himself—and might have better luck convincing them to keep the matter under wraps. Bishop McNicholas declined the priest’s suggestion but commended him for his “priestly service in this assignment.”

As of today, the Diocese of Springfield has received 22 reports of child sex abuse by Weerts. His time in the diocese is best summed up by Rob: “Weerts destroyed lives.”

Behind the scenes, however, there can be no doubt the bishop was concerned about the danger Weerts posed to children. In June 1979, he arranged for Weerts to be transferred to Saint Boniface in Edwardsville, where he would live and work while undergoing a “treatment plan” with a local doctor. After a year of “treatment,” the bishop was apparently satisfied with the results; in June 1980, he appointed Weerts the pastor of two parishes—Saint Brigid in Liberty and Saint Thomas in Camp Point. The diocese placed no restrictions on Weerts’s ministry. That was a mistake. Only a few months in, the bishop received a letter from a concerned parishioner: “Fr. Weerts took some of the high school students to a swimming party in Quincy. I heard that he went swimming with them and had a bikini swimsuit on. Is this right for a priest to do??”

More than 20 years after the diocese first was told Weerts posed a danger to children in 1962, it finally received a warning it could not ignore. Weerts was indicted in November 1985 by the Adams County state’s attorney. As part of the criminal investigation, police interviewed a church staffer who said in the summer of 1984 she had found Weerts and a child in the sacristy of the church. The room was dark when she opened the door—and because she felt “intimidated” by Weerts, who was known for his “bad temper,” she did not enter. Later the staffer said she “felt guilty.” She “was young and naïve” and not expecting to encounter something like this in such a sacred space.

Weerts was charged with five counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of three children under the age of 16. Prosecutors told the court there was a “clear indication” the diocese had removed Weerts from parishes “because of relationships with boys.” After pleading guilty, Weerts insisted during his sentencing hearing that he was prepared to “take full responsibility” for his actions but then, to the contrary, claimed he did not make the victims “do anything” and suggested they were “learning how to blame” others. Meanwhile, Bishop Daniel Ryan requested a sentence of probation because, he said, Weerts’s behavior had always been “of the very best”; he neglected to mention the evidence in the diocese’s own files showing Weerts had been sexually abusing boys for years. Ultimately, the judge sentenced Weerts to six years in prison.

Tragically, Weerts’ criminal conviction did not stop him from being around children. In the 1990s, he applied for a position as a horticultural instructor at Palm Beach Community College in Florida. The college reached out to diocesan priest Kevin Laughery, who said Weerts had left the Diocese of Springfield because he was changing careers; Laughery neglected to mention anything about Weerts’s criminal convictions because, he later claimed, he simply chose to answer the specific questions he was asked by the college. Aided by Laughery’s lies, Weerts became a community college professor—and then finagled his way into teaching a class at the local high school and giving talks to middle school students. Some of Weerts’s college students even used him as a babysitter. More than five years passed before a few intrepid students uncovered Weerts’s past and exposed him as a “pedophile priest.”

As of today, the Diocese of Springfield has received 22 reports of child sex abuse by Weerts. His time in the diocese is best summed up by Rob: “Weerts destroyed lives.”

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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.*