Cover Story: One man's struggle to survive a priest's abuse

Sins of the Father

Jul 20, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Sin s of the father

The stench upon entering the house refuses to be ignored. Richard Strunck, my host and the man who once saved my life, apologizes by way of explanation.

"I've got a bull mastiff in the basement and I've been too sick to clean up after him," he says.

Nothing about Strunck is orderly — not his housekeeping, not his family relationships and most especially not his emotions. Sexual abuse during childhood creates disorder that can last a lifetime, as Strunck, now 40, wants the world to know.

"I want to put a face on this and show people how it affects a person's whole life," he says.

But he wants something more, something he almost certainly can't have.

"I don't want it to be so bleak," he says. "I want people to see the positive."

What he means is that his life has points of pride and satisfaction in spite of the fact that he was, at various times between ages 13 and 19, the sex slave, pretended spouse, beneficiary and intended protégé of a Roman Catholic priest.

It's April 13 when we first meet at his house in Price Hill. Strunck canceled the first two interviews due to illness. In the coming months he will cancel four more due to illness and hospitalization for intestinal and back problems. Talking about what happened to him during adolescence proves excruciating.

"People who've been through this do not want to talk about it, especially to the press," he says. "But I've got a voice inside me telling me I can make a difference. The state police told me not to talk to the press. My lawyer told me not to talk to the press. But something has driven me to do it. I think it's God."

Lest you take any comfort from that premise, be forewarned — the devil seems a more likely source for this saga. If you're looking for one of those stories that show the indomitability of the human spirit or promise some other happy-crap moral, look elsewhere.

This story is fundamentally grotesque, involving the repeated rape of a boy and a coverup by the Catholic Church. But if you can bear to hear it, you will understand why the Diocese of Covington has agreed to pay up to $120 million to people who were sexually abused by some of its priests over the past 50 years.

What could the priests have done that justifies such a big payoff? If you can stand to know what just one boy suffered, you'll see why, after all these decades, the victims keep bringing up something that happened in their childhood and keep seeking answers.

Three times in three days
Waiting for his mother to get off work, 13-year-old Richie Strunck was standing in front of Mother of God Church in Covington, reading a historical marker, when Father Earl Bierman walked up and introduced himself.

The priest offered to take the boy out for ice cream the next night. But they went instead to Bierman's father's house in Woodlawn, a suburb of Newport, where they were alone.

Bierman showed Richie his father's 1937 Chevrolet and introduced his father's dog, Mark. Then he hugged the boy — a bit too tightly — and went into another room.

"Father Bierman told me to wait in the living room," Strunck says. "I sat there, very nervous about the way he was acting. Then I heard him call for me: 'Richie, come in here.' I walked into the bedroom, and there was Father Bierman lying on his father's bed with no clothes on.

"He waved me toward him and told me to lie on top of him. I still had my clothes on. Father Bierman began to unbutton my shirt. Then he unzipped my pants and took them off. He grabbed my penis through my underwear and massaged it. When he finished undressing me, he put his penis between my legs. As he thrust in and out, he started saying, 'Do you, Richie, take me, Earl Bierman, to be your spouse, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, to have and to hold, from this day forward? Amen.'

"As he said the wedding vow, he squeezed my penis and moved his hand up and down it. I had my first orgasm that night. I had never felt anything like it. The feeling was like being tickled, and I laughed. Father Bierman asked what was funny.

" 'I just had this funny feeling,' I said.

" 'That's an orgasm,' " he said. "At that point he started to thrust between my legs.

" 'I'm going to come,' he said.

"He made me reach between his legs and feel the sticky fluid. It was disgusting, but I did as I was told."

When it was over, the priest helped the boy into his underwear, zipped his pants, buckled his belt and warned him not to tell anyone.

"That very first night, he threatened me," Strunck says. "He said if anyone found out, he'd have to kill me and then kill himself."

It was a threat Bierman would repeat again and again.

The next night he showed up at the family's apartment on Philadelphia Street with groceries; he knew Richie's mother was raising five kids on her own.

"He said, 'When you're someone's husband, you take care of that person and their family,' " Strunck says.

Then the priest asked to see the boy's bedroom, where he proceeded to unzip his pants and ask for oral sex.

"I had never heard of such a thing," Strunck says. "I told Father Bierman I didn't want to do it. I was worried what would happen if someone caught us. But I was even more frightened of him."

The 13-year-old obeyed the priest.

"I started to gag as he came in my mouth," Strunck says. "I pulled back and tried to spit it out, but he held my head in place and made me swallow."

The next night Richie attended catechism class. While driving home, Bierman made him unzip and masturbated him in the car.

"In three days, I had been molested three times," Strunck says.

Outrage leads to outrage, and as the months turned to years, Bierman so effectively wormed his way into Richie's family that he had virtual control over the boy, keeping him on weekends.

"I was a 13-year-old little kid who had nothing," he says. "And here was this man who opened up a bank account for me and bought clothes for me and forced me to live with him. Every day after school he picked me up and every day he molested me. I didn't tell anybody because he threatened me and said nobody would believe me.

"Often times he would take me to the motel in Alexandria, rape me and take me to the mall or Value City discount store in Latonia. He told me that, since we had a marriage, it was his job to take care of me."

In 1993, Bierman pleaded guilty in Campbell County Circuit Court to 28 counts of sodomy and other crimes against children. Twenty-one of those counts involved Strunck.

'I can't go to Mass'
On April 20, we're talking in Strunck's back yard when his 3-year-old nephew says he wants to "go see Dora." While technically possible, Uncle Richie is having none of it. Dora, it seems, is a dog buried behind the garage, recently disinterred by another animal.

Meanwhile, Strunck is talking about the effects Bierman had on his life.

"I used to think I was gay," he says. "Then I got married. Now I have no idea what my sexuality is. That's what this does. Now I just don't have sex."

He recites a list of medications he's taken for a host of ailments, including Oxycontin and methadone for the physical kind. He's also received treatment for the emotional kind.

"I've been in therapy for 20 years," he says.

Strunck lives on $654 a month in social security disability benefits. He's been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and can't keep a job.

The phone rings. The caller is another of Bierman's victims, having doubts about meeting with the attorneys handling the class action lawsuit against the Diocese of Covington. The voluminous publicity about Bierman and the lawsuit doesn't diminish the shame and the pain that many victims still contend with. Strunck turns advocate, telling the caller it'll be all right to come forward.

"You're going to find out a lot of people care about you," he says. "Nobody's going to be mad at you or think it was your fault. People will embrace you."

After the phone conversation, he relates the story of a TV reporter who confided to him in 1993 that he, too, had been sexually abused as a kid.

"He broke down and told me about his childhood," Strunck says. "He said, 'This story means a lot to me.' "

Strunck is feeling emboldened. He says he might try to prosecute Bierman in Hamilton County if the priest gets out of the Kentucky State Reformatory, as scheduled, in 2006. The priest molested him on the Ohio side of the river, too.

"People ask why I'm trying to hurt the church," Strunck says. "The bishop (Roger Foys) thanked me and said the church owes me for making this all come out. I love the faith. But I can't go to Mass. I start bawling."

The interview is clipped. Strunck's father and several siblings have arrived; they're joining him in a meeting at attorney Stan Chesley's office. The lawsuit is close to a settlement, Strunck says. He reminds me that all of our interviews are embargoed until the case is resolved.

No one would call Strunck "polished," but he's hardly a naíf when it comes to dealing with the media. When Bierman was sentenced in 1993 to 20 years in prison, Strunck gave numerous interviews and appeared on radio talk shows.

Before that he had a brief but flashy career in Kentucky radio, starting at WNKU-FM and working his way up to program director at Magic 103 in Lexington before buying AM station WMAK in London, Ky.

But his media experience goes back further still. When Richie was 6 years old, his relatives in California read a wire service feature story about him. A precocious entrepreneur, he was earning 50 cents a day by cleaning the offices of a lawyer and the Boone County Police chief.

His name was then Richie Parks. It changed when, after his parents' divorce, his father allowed the boy's stepfather to adopt him. The stepfather is dead, and Strunck has reconciled with his birth father, James Parks.

But the strain is clear as the family prepares to meet with the lawyers. Richie appears annoyed as his father talks about the case as though he were one of the victims.

"I've been through a lot," Parks says. "I had to go to get Richie out of a mental hospital."

There have been several psychiatric hospitalizations, a brief jail term for writing bad checks, a briefer stint as a seminarian and several suicide attempts on Strunck's long journey from "victim" to "survivor."

Saved by the tape
When Richie was 13, Bierman enrolled him in catechism classes to prepare him for baptism as a Catholic. The boy became active in a youth group that met on Saturday nights for prayer meetings.

"The molestations continued throughout my time in the catechism class," Strunck says. "I was like Bierman's captive. My mother liked the fact that I was spending time with a father figure and with wholesome teenagers."

By that point, 1978-79, church officials had twice sent Bierman to residential treatment facilities after students had reported him for sexual abuse. But no one in the church kept him from leading the youth group, which went by the name Children of God.

Intended to foster religious devotion, the group became a vehicle for Bierman's sickness. Members as young as 14 were encouraged to reveal intensely personal information to one another and especially to Bierman.

"Bierman started feeding me secrets about people I knew, telling me what they had told him in confession," Strunck says. "He said, 'Our relationship is like a marriage, so I can tell you these things.' He told me about other teenagers who had had sex. He told me about teenagers who admitted masturbating. He told me about a kid who masturbated every night, a kid who bragged about how big his dick was, about people in the prayer group who had confessed having homosexual relations with each other. He told me about a priest who was sleeping with a girl in Children of God. Often he would tell me these things during sex, in an attempt to turn me on."

On several occasions the priest turned violent, once throwing Richie down a set of stairs, another time slapping him hard in the face when he refused to leave his mother's wedding and go with Bierman.

"He said, 'You're coming with me. I've already asked your mother,' " Strunck says. "He grabbed me by the arm and escorted me outside. His father was away, so we went to his house, the very first place where he had molested me. He said, 'Look at all I've done for you! Don't ever yell at me like that again.'

"He raped me again, forcing anal sex on me. He was very angry about my yelling at him. The sex was very rough. He smeared KY Jelly on my anus, but the intercourse was very painful. I did not resist. I was with a man who was 6-foot-2 and angry."

Bierman continued to molest Strunck until he was 17 years old.

But while Bierman repeatedly threatened Richie, the violent episodes were rare. The priest preferred to reward his victim, taking him on vacations to San Francisco and Albuquerque, buying him a car and later investing in the radio station he had bought.

"Looking back, he brainwashed me," Strunck says. "He kept reminding me that we were married. He lavished gifts on me and necessities on my family. I started to think he was right and everything was OK."

Despite repeated complaints to church officials, Bierman continued to molest young boys, although most of the cases were not as extreme as what he did to Strunck. Documents uncovered in litigation later revealed that the diocese knew of 73 victims, starting soon after Bierman was ordained in 1957.

As a former student of Bierman's and a member of the Children of God, I knew his reputation — many of us did — but it wasn't until 1992 that the allegations were publicly aired. A victim allowed me to report his story in The Mount Washington Press and then filed a complaint with the Kentucky State Police.

The secrets started tumbling out. More than 50 men told police that they'd been molested by the priest, and Bierman was arrested.

While free on bond in early 1993, he phoned Strunck and said he planned to buy a gun. He said he planned to kill me and then commit suicide. He didn't know Strunck was taping the call.

Police took the tape to a judge, who issued a warrant charging Bierman with terroristic threatening. He was captured after trying to buy a gun in Newport — the last day he walked as a free man.

'He taught me how'
It's June 15, the day after we learned Bierman has died in a prison hospital at age 73. By coincidence, his death comes on the heels of a settlement of the class action lawsuit against the Diocese of Covington.

The sequence of events plays havoc with Strunck's emotions. He comes to the door in what appears to be a narcotic haze.

We sit in the living room, where a dog — not the mastiff — is licking an empty Wendy's chili carton, which lies among a collection of dirty laundry, overturned cups, two-liter pop bottles, food wrappers and used napkins on the floor. Strunck lights a cigarette butt with barely any tobacco left in it.

"I think at some point in my life I really loved him," Strunck says. "He did things for me nobody else ever did. Granted, he did things that were wrong. But when I was 15 years old, I didn't know they were wrong. He brainwashed me. I believed he really loved me.

"He would have been a great man if he had not sexually abused children and manipulated their families. He could have had an impact on my life that would have been awesome."

During pauses, Strunck starts nodding off, the effect of painkillers, he says. But rage is simmering below the surface. The longer we talk, the angrier he becomes.

"He pronounced wedding vows on me while he was fucking me," Strunck says. "I thought he loved me. To this day, when I masturbate, it makes me sick to my stomach, because he taught me how to do it.

"My first orgasm was with him. I hadn't even heard the word 'orgasm.' It felt good. People might think that's sick, but that's what people don't understand about sexual abuse — the act itself feels good. Am I sick because of that?"

He talks about members of the Children of God who sexually abused him. They were young adults, and Bierman was notorious for trying to arrange sexual liaisons between boys he liked. But Strunck was a juvenile, and he thinks aloud about pursuing criminal charges against them.

"I feel like, if I report it, everybody will say, 'Here he goes again, saying somebody sexually abused him,' " Strunck says.

I'm trying to gauge whether to cancel the interview and make room for his depression, but he suggests I stay.

"You need to see me like this," he says. "This is the kind of stuff people need to know about. He would say, 'As long as two people are in a loving commitment, it's OK.' I was 13 years old. How the hell could I have a loving commitment?

"When I would do the radio shows, people would say, 'What's wrong with this boy? Why didn't he tell anybody?' How do you respond to that? I wasn't fully developed yet. I remember my first orgasm. I had no concept. He had to explain it to me."

At one point the ash grows long on a cigarette Strunck is holding while falling asleep. I debate whether to wake him or let the burning cigarette do it for me. The phone rings; his father is calling.

Without warning Strunck jumps from the chair and walks into the kitchen. If he wanted privacy, it doesn't work; he's yelling so loudly into the phone that I easily hear him in the living room.

"No, Dad! I'm not talking about that," he shouts. "This has nothing to do with you."

After hanging up in mid-conversation, he returns to the living room.

"They almost don't care what I've been through," he says. "I feel so alone in my family."

The phone rings again, and more shouting follows. He's arguing with his father about a disagreement with another family member.

"I was the one who told the truth!" he yells into the phone. "I just want an apology, and I want him to talk to me. I don't hate him! If he wants to apologize, he can call me."

Strunck starts crying when the subject turns, as it does in every interview, to his mother's death. He blames former Covington Bishop William Hughes for the fact that she died thinking her son had lied about Bierman.

While in treatment in Maryland, Bierman wrote Richie's mother, saying Richie had fabricated wild stories about sexual abuse. At a meeting with Richie's parents, Hughes refused to confirm that the abuse allegations were true. When she later developed breast cancer, Richie's mother still believed the priest.

"I was only allowed to see my mother in the hospital after I said I made it up," Strunck says. "She died thinking I was a liar."

Who officiated at the funeral? Father Bierman, of course.

Now, years later, after Bierman's guilty plea and imprisonment, after dozens of other victims have come forward, Strunck's family no longer doubts what happened to him.

"I've had family members say, 'We suspected it,' " he says. "I want to scream it: 'Watch your kids. Take care of your kids. It will fuck them up for the rest of their lives.' I can't even work. My whole life has been destroyed. I had a promising career, and it's all gone. My teeth are falling out because for so long I didn't care about myself and didn't even brush my teeth. It's embarrassing to talk to people.

"I tried suicide six times. I know that's not an option. But I can't say I didn't think about it today. I'm so poor I can't even eat. I can't buy clothes."

Scared of heaven
Our final interview has to be postponed because Strunck fell down the stairs in his home, re-injuring his back and requiring more hospitalization. When we meet July 6, he's in a far calmer mood. He feels sheepish about the earlier interview.

"I have to be careful because I can explode — not physically, but just blow up with rage when I'm talking to someone," he says.

Strunck says he used to fear Bierman would haunt him after dying. But now another kind of otherworldly menace is on his mind: What if he meets his tormentor in heaven?

"It's possible on his deathbed Bierman had some kind of repentance and will go to heaven," he says. "I doubt it, but it's possible. That's really scary for me. That's how strong the abuse was. It was spiritual abuse."

The past few weeks have been exhausting for Strunck, physically and mentally. Several times in his youth, he awakened to find Bierman performing oral sex on him. To this day sleep is problematic.

"You don't want to go to sleep because the dreams are so bad," he says. "I'll have a real bad dream one night and then I can't sleep for two or three nights. Most people can lay down at night and close their eyes. I have a fear of going to sleep."

With the class action lawsuit nearing final resolution — the judge overseeing the case has given preliminary approval to the terms of the deal — Strunck is pondering what he'll do with the approximately $1 million he expects to receive. He might start a foundation to help educate parents about sexual abuse. He might buy a house in Florida.

"I hate the winters here," he says.

He gives the go-ahead for reporting his story; he says the lawyers have relaxed their no-press rule.

"I still get up every day, like I have every day for 25 years, and I think about him," Strunck says. "Now he's — wow! — he's gone."

He giggles nervously.

"I'm so relieved, but I have to tell myself that about every 15 minutes: He's dead," he continues. "I think he always knew deep down inside that I was going to talk. It's like a voice inside me would say, 'Don't forget this. Remember that.' Some people repress their memories, but it was like I made a mental note."

Those mental notes helped stop a serial child molester and forced the church to account for its own role in his crimes. In that, Strunck finds a certain peace of mind.

"It's taken 15 years to do it, but I'm proud of the fact that I did help bring about change," he says. "I really hope I can make some good come out of this. I think I already have." ©