Editor’s note: This story contains details of child sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
When Turner Casey, 56, first spoke to a reporter at The Commercial Appeal about having been sexually abused as a child by a Catholic priest in Humboldt, Tennessee, he wondered who else had been abused by the same priest.
“I’m 99.9% certain I couldn’t have been the only one,” said Casey, who now lives in Louisiana.
In the weeks following that phone call, as Casey spoke to friends and family about the possibility of his childhood abuse coming to light in an article, he learned something he’d never expected: His younger brother, who died in 2021, was likely also abused by the same priest.
Today, Casey knows he can’t change what happened to him or could have happened to his brother, but he wants people to know that Joel Wiggs, once a well-respected priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Humboldt, shouldn’t be held in esteem in the small town’s history.
“He was revered in Humboldt and I’m not the only one,” Casey said. “If this helps one person come forward, then so be it. But at the end of the day, this happened, it’s the truth, there’s no monetary gain for me. It’s painful. I want the truth to come out that it wasn’t right and that, it was horrible, it was horrible. This guy was a predator and he preyed on children by offering up activities that children would want to go to and then he took advantage of them. Just how many are there? How many kids were impacted in their lives because of this monster in Humboldt that is held up and revered as a pillar of the community?”
The CA does not normally identify survivors of sexual abuse, but Casey gave permission for his name to be used.
While the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, which has encompassed Humboldt since its creation in 1971, released a list of “credibly accused” priests in 2020, Wiggs’ name has never been added to the list — even though he has been reported to the diocese at least three times, twice by acquaintances of Casey’s around 2002 and 2013 and also by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests Tennessee Chapter in 2019.
The Diocese of Memphis told The Commercial Appeal that after reviewing its diocesan files, it had no record of Casey or anyone on his behalf reporting Wiggs and that there are not “any allegations against Fr. Wiggs that have been determined by the Review Board as credible.”
“We can assure you the Diocese of Memphis treats all claims seriously — no matter how old. And, the matter will be promptly and thoroughly investigated,” said Rick Ouellette, spokesperson for the diocese.
Wiggs also does not appear on the list of credibly accused priests compiled by the Diocese of Nashville, which encompassed Humboldt prior to the creation of the Diocese of Memphis. A representative of the Diocese of Nashville said they don’t have any records regarding Wiggs other than a biography and that records pertaining to parishes in a new diocese are normally taken to that diocese for their archives.
He also said the Diocese of Nashvill encourages all victims to report abuse to civil authories and the diocese “no matter how long ago it might have happened.”
Wiggs died in 2001 at 78 years old. He appears to have been ordained in 1949 and retired in 1995.
Online, as recently as 2016, people have praised Wiggs as an outstanding member of the Humboldt community. He was a volunteer fireman and fire chaplain, was on the National Catholic Disaster Relief Service Committee and, according to an article in the Jackson Sun, was “very active” with the Boy Scouts.
Trips to racquetball, sleepovers escalated to rape
Casey remembers growing up in Humboldt with Wiggs as a regular presence in his life from when he was about eight years old.
Wiggs attended Christmas Eve dinners at Casey’s grandparent’s house, gifted boys with cologne at the holidays and came to family dinners on weeknights, Casey recalled.
The priest was often surrounded by young boys between the ages of 8-13, Casey said. He’d take them to Jackson to play racquetball and to the lake to waterski. Sometimes a few of the boys would spend the night at Wiggs’ home.
The Commercial Appeal spoke with multiple friends and family members of Casey who corroborated parts of his account, including him telling them about the abuse years ago.
While many in the community regarded Wiggs as a mentor to young boys, some of the more innocuous activities veered into grooming behaviors early on, Casey recalled.
Casey said he remembers Wiggs encouraging boys to be naked in the locker room and the hot tub at the racquet club, “’cause that’s what a man does.” The priest would get in the hot tub naked with the children, Casey said.
And while overnight visits at Wiggs’ house began with the boys staying in a different room, Casey said it soon escalated to showers together, baby oil massages, watching pornographic movies on Cinemax and the priest encouraging masturbation. Often, Wiggs would drop him off at school the next morning.
Then, when Casey was in seventh grade, Wiggs raped him with a finger. Casey said he remembers recoiling that night, realizing something was very, very wrong. He began to avoid Wiggs, something made easier when he began to drive in late seventh and early eighth grade. Eventually, he moved away to college, separating him completely from the priest.
Today, Casey has two adult children who he’s extremely proud of, he’s in a good romantic relationship and has the support of his family. He’s building a new deck on his house and regards his life as “good,” but still has questions about the lasting effect of his childhood trauma.
Brother had ‘a burden deep inside him’
What Casey didn’t know is that his younger brother, Josh Casey, also spent time with Wiggs.
A few weeks ago, Casey called his mother to tell her that his experiences would appear in an article by The CA.
The next day she called him back, apologizing for what happened with Wiggs. She told him something else, that Josh spent more time with Wiggs than Casey ever had.
Josh Casey died in 2021 at 50 years old from a heart attack. Turner Casey recalls his brother as having lived a troubled life. Now, he wonders if trauma from sexual abuse as a child may have led to his difficulties.
After speaking with his mother, Casey called his sister-in-law, who had been married to Josh for 28 years before his death.
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She told him that yes, Josh had told her about Wiggs.
Casey’s sister-in-law spoke with The CA but asked not to be named.
She confirmed that her husband Josh Casey had often spoken about activities with Wiggs.
“He said it so many times that I know that it had bothered him and that he really might have wanted to do something about it,” she said. “Anytime he ever talked about it, most of the time he was somewhat vague, he never went into, I wouldn’t call it graphic detail, but I was left with the insinuation and knew that this man had done more than he should’ve done with a young fellow.”
While she doesn’t know everything that happened to Josh, she knows “it was a burden deep inside of him.”
‘Deference paid to clergy’ can lead to abuse, expert says
Turner Casey said he doesn’t know what sort of an impact the child sexual abuse by Wiggs has had on his life.
He’s been “pretty successful,” he said, but has also “been way up and way down.” Life has been a “rollercoaster.” His brother had a more difficult life before dying of a heart attack.
Casey never told anyone about the abuse in detail until college, when he told his sophomore-year girlfriend. The two drove to Humboldt to confront Wiggs, eventually finding him where he lived near Three Way, a small town between Humboldt and Jackson. Wiggs had had triple bypass surgery and was a “frail, old man.” Casey found him “pathetic” and didn’t bring up the abuse. They just left.
Some things strike Casey about the abuse in hindsight: While Wiggs did spend time with Catholic boys, the boys who he spent the most time with were not members of his parish.
Casey and his family, for example, were Southern Baptist.
“It was a pattern of kids he knew he wouldn’t have to see with their parents on a regular basis,” Casey said.
Susan Vance, who works with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests Tennessee Chapter, said it doesn’t matter whether the victims are or are not Catholic, priests can use their authority to prey on the vulnerable.
“There is an innate deference paid to clergy no matter what they are,” Vance said. “That innate deference gives them power, power over the families and the children.”
According to diocesan records reviewed by Vance, Wiggs spent time at St. Anne Church and Blessed Sacrament Church in Memphis from 1951-1954, at St. Mary’s in Oak Ridge in 1955, St. Francis in Chattanooga from 1956-1957, Blessed Sacrament in Harriman from 1958-1966, then Sacred Heart in Humboldt from 1967-1995.
Casey first told his mother about the abuse in 2013, something she confirmed to The CA.
Today, she wonders if she should have known something was wrong in the relationship between the priest and two of her sons, but said she “always thanked God that I had boys, because I thought they didn’t have to go through all this.”
She asked that her name not be used in this story.
Another family member also spoke to The CA, confirming that Wiggs had told her about the abuse in 2002.
Sometimes, Casey thinks of other boys he and his brother grew up with who spent time with Wiggs.
There are a few who he suspects were abused, but they have passed away.
Frank Bertelt, a friend of Casey’s growing up, said he also remembers spending “at least a dozen sleepovers” at Wiggs’ house and going to racquetball. Unlike Casey, Bertelt was raised Catholic.
He was never abused, Bertelt said, but looking back, he thinks about how it looked to have boys spending the night. Wiggs had a waterbed, access to Cinemax and a boat at the lake.
“You look at it years later and go ‘yeesh, I wouldn’t want … this is a weird-looking situation,’” Bertelt said.
‘Maybe it will help them’
Casey’s story is similar to many others Vance has heard, she said, stories that will “break your heart.” Many victims won’t come forward out of shame, fear or because they have signed a nondisclosure agreement with the diocese, she said. Of those who do come forward, the average age is 53 when someone says, “I can’t stand this anymore, I’m going to tell others.”
Today, Casey is 56. It’s too late to help his brother and too late to hold Wiggs accountable for his actions.
But in telling his story, Casey said he has begun to realize the severity of what happened to him.
More:Memphis’ first Black Catholic bishop on sexual abuse, race, LGBTQ outreach
For years, he thought, “worse things happened to other people at the hands of priests.” But now, he’s wondering how the abuse impacted him in school, in decision-making throughout life and in his avoidance of organized religion.
Through telling his story, he’s hopeful others will find the strength to come forward if they also were abused by Wiggs. Even if another survivor doesn’t come forward, but is given some resolution by knowing he wasn’t alone, that’s enough for Casey.
“There’s got to be a kid out there — they were kids when I knew them — there’s got to be people out there that if this has stuck with me for as long as it has and what he did to me was horrible, there’s a lot of more horrible things that probably were done,” Casey said. “If they’ve been living with this and been scared, maybe it will help them if somebody comes forward. At the end of the day, this happened, this guy should not be revered as a pillar of the community and the truth needs to come out.”
Katherine Burgess covers Memphis City Government and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com or followed on X, formerly known as Twitter, @kathsburgess.