Rev. Joseph J. Pilger Murder

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A Case Study of Sexual Abuse and Murder
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Date of Murder: December, 2003

 

 

 

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by Leon J. Podles

Published by the Crossland Foundation, February 19, 2008
Updated April 1, 2008
© Copyright, Crossland Foundation, 2008

 

The Rev. Joseph Pilger, ordained in 1955, was assigned as a priest in several Kentucky parishes.

 

Dan Willett was twelve years old in 1958 when he met Pilger, who was stationed at St. Paulís Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Willettís parents allowed him to accompany Pilger on a trip to see the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington.

 

On the way there, Pilger stopped at his father’s house, and there, according to Willett,

[Pilger] pinned [Willett] down on a bed and tore his clothes off.

 

“He was telling me what he was going to do, and how I was going to enjoy it,” Willett said. He said he told Pilger to get off him and that Pilger’s father would hear him scream. Pilger said he could go ahead and scream, that his father was as deaf as a doornail.

 

As a 12-year-old fighting a grown man, Willett was overmatched. He said he finally got Pilger to leave him alone by telling him he would run for help when Pilger fell asleep.1Kevin Eigelbach, “Sexually Abusive Priest Slain,” Cincinnati Post, December 8, 2003.

 

For two years, Pilger continued to roughhouse with Willett and touch his genitals. When Willett threatened to tell his parents, Pilger told him to go ahead: “Who do you think they will believe?”2Kevin Eigelbach, “Sexually Abusive Priest Slain,” Cincinnati Post, December 8, 2003. Willett blocked the abuse out of his mind until 1993, when Pilger was arrested for abuse of the Long boys. Willett’s life then “went to hell in a hand basket,” Willett “lost his faith, was divorced from his wife of 35 years and lost his ability to concentrate” (Kevin Eigelbach, “Priest Convicted of Abuse Found Dead,” Kentucky Post, Decembers 8, 2003).

 

But there were other boys, and Willett remembered that in 1962, about six parents came to his house and asked him if Pilger had ever done anything sexual with him. Willett admitted Pilger had. The parents went to Bishop Richard Henry Ackerman, and Pilger disappeared from Lexington for a stay at the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico.

 

After returning to Kentucky, Pilger was sent to the neighboring diocese of Owensboro. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Pilger was stationed at St. Francis Church in Sturgis, Kentucky, he abused four brothers and their cousin: James Lamb Long II; Michael R. Long; Matthew Joseph Long; John M. Long; and Robert J. Long. All were under fifteen years of age. The brothers said:

 

The priest would stand behind them while they were dressing for Mass and would fondle them. They also said the priest would make excuses for them to go to the nearby rectory where he would have them disrobe and abuse them.3John Lucas, “Retired Priest Pleads Guilty to Sexual Abuse of Boys,” Scripps Howard News Service, December 13, 1994.

 

In 1993, the boys from the Long family filed a civil suit against Pilger and the diocese of Owensboro. The court dismissed the civil case due to the statute of limitations. But Kentucky has no statute of limitations on felonies, and in September 1993 Pilger was indicted on eighty-four charges of sexual abuse.

 

Pilger, who was then sixty-nine years old, pleaded guilty to three of the counts, and received up to 15 years in prison, to be probated if Pilger received counseling. Pilger would later regret getting off so easy.

 

James Anthony Russell had an unhappy childhood. He said (and a later psychiatric evaluation concurred) that his mother, “a heroin addict and a prostitute,” put him and his sister in foster homes, where he was physically and sexually abused.Cassandra Kirby, “Russell Tells Why He Killed Priest,” Lexington Herald-Leader, October 1, 2005. 4

 

As an adult, Russell was convicted of robbery and sentenced to prison, where he met a fellow inmate, Earl Bierman, also a priest.5Bierman had a “marriage” ceremony with his male victims before he raped them (Gregory Flannery, “Sins of the Fathers: One Man’s Struggle to Survive a Priest’s Abuse,” Cincinnati City Beat, July 20, 2005). Bierman was unrepentant and died of cancer in prison (Cindy Schroeder, “Bierman in Denial until the End,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 19, 2005). Bierman had used the confessional to gain information about boys’ sexual lives, and used that information to initiate sexual encounters.6John Nolan, “Priest Pleads Guilty to Sex Abuse Charges; Ex-N[orthern] K[entuck]y Teacher Might Get Twenty Years,” Lexington Herald-Leader, May 6, 1993. He pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and was serving twenty years. Bierman had an unspecified connection with Pilger, and he told Russell to get in touch with Pilger. Russell began to write to Pilger.

 

Released from prison in October 2003, Russell, at age twenty-six, had no place to turn. He looked up the seventy-eight-year-old Pilger (not knowing about Pilger’s own conviction) and moved in with him at 260 Pleasant Point Drive in Lexington, Kentucky. Pilger gave Russell food and lodging, and asked him to do only one thing in return: walk around the house naked. Russell was not worried about the request and later said, “I’m secure about my manhood, so I was like, ‘all right.’”7Cassandra Kirby, “Russell Tells Why He Killed Priest,” Lexington Herald-Leader, October 1, 2005.

 

 

Footnotes

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1 Kevin Eigelbach, “Sexually Abusive Priest Slain,” Cincinnati Post, December 8, 2003.

2 Kevin Eigelbach, “Sexually Abusive Priest Slain,” Cincinnati Post, December 8, 2003. Willett blocked the abuse out of his mind until 1993, when Pilger was arrested for abuse of the Long boys. Willett’s life then “went to hell in a hand basket,” Willett “lost his faith, was divorced from his wife of 35 years and lost his ability to concentrate” (Kevin Eigelbach, “Priest Convicted of Abuse Found Dead,” Kentucky Post, Decembers 8, 2003).

3 John Lucas, “Retired Priest Pleads Guilty to Sexual Abuse of Boys,” Scripps Howard News Service, December 13, 1994.

4 Cassandra Kirby, “Russell Tells Why He Killed Priest,” Lexington Herald-Leader, October 1, 2005.

5 Bierman had a “marriage” ceremony with his male victims before he raped them (Gregory Flannery, “Sins of the Fathers: One Man’s Struggle to Survive a Priest’s Abuse,” Cincinnati City Beat, July 20, 2005). Bierman was unrepentant and died of cancer in prison (Cindy Schroeder, “Bierman in Denial until the End,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 19, 2005).

6 John Nolan, “Priest Pleads Guilty to Sex Abuse Charges; Ex-N[orthern] K[entuck]y Teacher Might Get Twenty Years,” Lexington Herald-Leader, May 6, 1993.

7 Cassandra Kirby, “Russell Tells Why He Killed Priest,” Lexington Herald-Leader, October 1, 2005.

 

 

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