K I S S I M M E E, Fla., March 28, 2002 -- For four decades, former major league baseball star Tom Paciorek kept a secret that, for most of that time, he couldn't even reveal to his close family.
He says that as a teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, he was molested more than 100 times by a teacher at his Catholic school, a family friend who later became a priest. The abuse started when Paciorek was 15 and lasted until he left for college on a football scholarship at 19, he said.
Paciorek said he decided to go public because the Rev. Gerald Shirilla was recently reassigned to St. Mary's Catholic Church, a parish in Alpena, Mich. He said he feared for the safety of the parish's children.
"I realized that the children in that parish were in grave danger," Paciorek, 55, told Good Morning America. "I felt like I couldn't live with myself. Something had to be done to protect the children."
Paciorek, now a sports commentator for the Atlanta Braves, spoke to Good Morning America from Kissimmee, where he is covering spring training. Three of his brothers have also accused Shirilla of molesting them when they were boys. The siblings never spoke of the incidents until about 20 years ago, when one of Paciorek's brothers opened up to the others.
After learning of Shirilla's appointment, the brothers went to the Detroit Free Press and told their story together.
As revelations of sexual abuse by priests have surfaced nationwide, the Catholic Church seems to be listening at last, Paciorek said.
Removed From Church
The day before Paciorek's accusations appeared in the newspaper, Shirilla was removed from the church. Now 63, he had been out of active service for nine years. The Archdiocese of Detroit had barred Shirilla from active ministry after hearing what it called credible evidence in 1993 that he had molested boys, decades earlier.
Shirilla's attorney denies the former baseball's star's allegations.
"Father Shirilla never abused or molested Tom Paciorek," attorney Michael Smith told Good Morning America. "Father Shirilla detests any sexual molestation of anyone."
After his dismissal from the ministry in 1993, Shirilla was sent to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a sexual-disorder treatment center, and released a year later. Another man had filed a lawsuit against the priest in 1993, but no criminal charges followed because the statute of limitations had run out.
'Sworn to Secrecy'
When the Paciorek brothers were children, Shirilla was studying to be a priest, and he had become close to their family. The boys felt ashamed to tell their parents, or each other, about what was happening — even as Shirilla abused one of them after the other, Paciorek said.
"The pedophiles, they'll get in with the family, then they infiltrate their way through the young men, who are great candidates for this because they feel like they will be sworn to secrecy," Paciorek said.
In part, he kept quiet about the abuse for years in part to protect his mother and father, both devout Catholics who would have been shattered to learn the truth, he said.
"The way we were brought up, in the Catholic faith, anybody that represented the church, a nun or a priest, represented God on earth," Paciorek said. "We had so much respect for Catholicism that we put all of our trust in that."
Now the former All-Star player hopes his story will help the healing process for other men who suffered similar abuse — "guys who felt they were on an island, like myself, and my brothers, who felt there was no where to turn to, who swore themselves to secrecy," Paciorek said.
'Painful to Live With'
Paciorek had a long, successful baseball career from 1970 to 1987. He played outfield and first base for six major league teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets and Texas Rangers, with a solid lifetime batting average of .282.
Despite his career success, the abuse that he suffered as a teen has affected him emotionally over the years, Paciorek said. It impacted his ability to maintain trust and intimacy in relationships.
"I compartmentalized everything inside of me — it was difficult," Paciorek said. "It was too painful to live with this on a daily basis.
"During the molestations, physically I was there, but mentally, I was not," he said.
It is important for parents and the public to recognize that teachers or priests can betray their trust.
"The public has to be aware there are individuals out there in this world that are capable of hurting your children," he said.
Despite his story, Paciorek is still a devout Catholic. His children went to Catholic schools, and he wants his grandchildren to attend as well.
"I think the Catholic Church is starting to listen to this plea," Paciorek said.