EVEN ON THE hottest days of summer, the Rev William “Bill” Liebert wore a coat. After spending 49 years as a missionary in PNG — where the coldest night might dip as low as 73 degrees — it was understandable he’d find August in Chicago relatively cool.
Father Liebert, whose drug-fighting work on the other side of the world got him slapped around by thugs from PNG’s raskol gangs — and earned him the enmity of Chinese mobsters — died of kidney failure on 6 May at the Divine Word Missionaries house in Techny, Illinois, where he had lived since 2006. He was 81.
Though he was director-general of PNG’s National Narcotics Bureau from 1992 to 2001, he considered his most important work to have been his effort to keep boys out of adult prisons, where they might be sexually exploited and graduate to more serious levels of criminality.
He not only represented them in court, but also helped create Boys Town, an institution in Wewak that fed, housed and educated juveniles accused of crimes. The children there called him Pata Bill.
Father Liebert grew up about as far from PNG as you can get, in Kansas. His family owned a farm that grew corn, wheat and soybeans. He always wanted to be a priest, and after he was ordained “he wanted to do something exciting,” said Rev Donald O’Connor, a fellow missionary who served 35 years with him in PNG.
In 1957, Father Liebert was sent to PNG and, as the country became more westernised, modern-day scourges took root, including AIDS, gun violence and drugs such as crystal meth and marijuana dubbed “New Guinea Gold.”
One of Father Liebert’s finest moments occurred around 2003. Smugglers were trying to route ephedrine through China, India and crime-ridden Port Moresby to make “ice” — crystal meth. Through his many sources, “Bill got wind of that,” Fr O’Connor said. “He made the authorities aware of it.”
He was “working against the Chinese mafia,” O’Connor said. “He was really what I would call a modern-day St Paul. He was chased and even beat up by people.” He also represented the prime minister of PNG at United Nations anti-drug conferences in Vienna and other major cities.
A pipe smoker, he developed throat cancer about 20 years ago. At first it silenced him, but he learned to speak again despite having to have surgery on his throat. His letters home were lyrical, his nieces said. He wrote about the island’s big snakes, including a python that became a pet.
The distance and expense were so great that he could come home only about every five years. When he visited Kansas, he couldn’t get enough fried chicken. When you asked for fried chicken in PNG, he’d say, you never were sure just what you were getting. He always brought his nieces beautiful seashells, or bags made of New Guinea vines.
Father Liebert will be buried in the grounds of the Sacred Heart Monastery in Wewak.
Source: Chicago Sun-Times