DUBLIN — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., made waves over the weekend when he announced his withdrawal from the World Meeting of Families in Ireland after a Pennsylvania grand jury report asserting that despite some positive efforts, Wuerl had mishandled several abuse cases while serving as Bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1990s and 2000s.
Among other things, Wuerl was said to have not only authorized the transfer of known abuser priests, but he also authorized generous settlement and retirement funds for priests accused of sexual abuse and used diocesan funds to mitigate at least one priest’s sentence in a civil lawsuit.
The charges against Wuerl surfaced in a grand jury report released Tuesday, which investigated clerical abuse in six of Pensylvania’s eight dioceses. The jury interviewed some 1,000 victims dating back to 1947, and as a result, identified some 300 “predator priests.”
Wuerl, who oversaw the Diocese of Pittsburgh from February 1988-May 2006, is a close ally of Pope Francis and was slated to give a keynote address titled “The Welfare of the Family is Decisive for the Future of the World” during the Aug. 22-26 event.
His cancellation comes just days after Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston announced that he was also withdrawing from the event, where he was scheduled to lead a panel on child protection, in order to address an internal investigation into abuse at St. John’s Seminary in his diocese.
While some details have emerged regarding Wuerl’s actions with abuser priest Father Ernest Paone, the report also flagged Wuerl’s response to Father George Zirwas and Father Richard Zula, both of whom were part of a ring that engaged in the production and exchange of child pornography and sadomasochistic behavior with their under-age victims.
Father Ernest Paone
Nearly 900 pages in length, the grand jury report highlights three cases for each of the six dioceses investigated: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
The first case identified in Pittsburgh, which Wuerl caught the tail end of after his appointment as bishop in 1988, is Paone, who was ordained in 1957 and retired in 2007.
In his first nine years in ministry, Paone was assigned to five different parishes. According to the grand jury’s findings, the first recorded knowledge the diocese had of the alleged sexual abuse of a minor by Paone came in 1962, when the bishop at the time, John Wright, was informed that a priest had intervened so that Paone would not be arrested for molesting boys and the illegal use of guns with young parishioners.
Paone was then transferred and no action was taken against him, nor were any reports made to civil law enforcement. In 1964, district attorney Robert Masters wrote a letter to the diocese about an abuse investigation into Paone, yet Masters later dropped the investigation “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity” for the Church.
Paone went on an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons, and, while remaining under the supervision of Pittsburgh, relocated to several different dioceses, including Los Angeles and San Diego. He stayed outside of Pittsburgh until 1991.
Despite the history of abuse allegations, Paone obtained permission from Wright to exercise his priestly faculties in Los Angeles and from Bishop Vincent Martin Leonard in 1975. He served in several parish assignments, heard confessions and taught in public schools with the permission of the Pittsburgh diocese.
A year after taking the reins in the diocese in 1989, Wuerl sent the Vatican a detailed letter providing names of priests accused of abuse, documenting diocesan policies for dealing with abuse and outlining his responsibility as a bishop to determine what action is taken. Wuerl said parishioners “had a right to know” whether a priest accused of abuse had been reassigned to their parish, and he informed the Vatican that he had begun a review of prior cases.
However, the report also found that Wuerl granted Paone permission in 1991 to be transferred to Reno. Just three years later, in 1994 Pittsburgh received another complaint of sexual abuse committed by Paone in the 1960s.
Paone then went on another leave for alleged health reasons and was sent to an institute for evaluation. Afterwards, the report documented a series of letters about Paone’s assignments exchanged between Wuerl and then-Father David Zubik, who is the current bishop of Pittsburgh and who at the time served as the diocese’s director of the office for clergy.
Several confidential files reveal that questions regarding Paone’s mental and emotional health had been a concern since his time in seminary in the 1950s. The jury found that Wuerl sent the Los Angeles and Reno dioceses letters about the 1994 complaint, but he did not mention the confidential information in the records.
“The diocese did not recall Paone; nor did it suspend his faculties as a priest,” the report said, noting that when Paone asked Wuerl in 1996 to attest that he had “not had any problems involving sexual abuse, any history of sexual involvement with minors or others, or any other inappropriate sexual behavior,” Wuerl deferred to the diocesan secretary for clergy and religious, saying Paone had not been in the diocese for 30 years.
Paone continued in ministry until a 2002 bombshell series on clerical abuse published by the Boston Globe was published. Afterwards, Paone’s faculties were removed and he was placed on leave.
In 2002, yet another complaint was made accusing Paone of abuse in the 1960s, including fondling, oral sex and anal sex with a 15-year-old, as well as bribery with alcohol, cash and pornography. In 2003 Wuerl accepted Paone’s resignation, but assured him that “sustenance needs and benefits will continue according to the norms of law.”
Father George Zirwas
Ordained in 1979, Zirwas faced several allegations of sexual abuse during his priestly ministry before ultimately going on leave for personal reasons in 1995. He was murdered in Havana, Cuba in 2001. The grand jury identified Zirwas as being part of a ring of predatory priests in the area who shared information about victims and exchanged victims among themselves.
These priests manufactured child pornography on diocesan property, including at parishes and rectories, and used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims, who were given gold cross necklaces as a “gift,” but which served as an indicator for other pedophiles that the youth had been desensitized and was vulnerable to further abuse.
According to the jury, many original documents on the Zirwas case were destroyed, but through piecing together notes of meetings and summaries of facts, they determined that the first accusation against Zirwas to the Pittsburgh diocese was raised in 1987, a year before Wuerl took office.
Additional complaints were raised against Zirwas between 1987-1995, yet he was assigned to several different parishes during that time.
In February 1988, the same year Wuerl took the helm in Pittsburgh, another allegation was raised against Zirwas of inappropriate touching, which he acknowledged. He was then sent to an institute and later returned to ministry. When a second complaint was raised that same year, Zirwas was again sent to a different institute and was again placed back into ministry.
When yet another victim came forward in 1991, Zirwas was transferred. He was moved again in May 1994, and in December of that year went on a leave of absence for “personal reasons.”
A year later Zirwas asked to be transferred to Miami, saying there were “false rumors” circulating in Pittsburgh. He threatened legal action against diocesan personnel for “raising the consciousness” of some of his former parishioners, and within days, the report said, Wuerl returned him to ministry and assigned him to a parish.
When another victim came forward just a few months later accusing Zirwas of inappropriate touching when the victim was just 15, Zirwas was again placed on leave, which lasted until his death after moving to Florida and then Cuba.
In 1996 Zirwas wrote to the Pittsburgh diocese offering to provide a list of other abuser priests in exchange for increased retirement payments.
In their report, the jury said Wuerl asked Zirwas to provide the names and any knowledge he had of their activities. After Zirwas sent such a letter, denying any participation or responsibility, his monthly stipend from the diocese was increased.
When Wuerl presided over Zirwas’s funeral, he stated, among other things, that “a priest is a priest. Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever.”
Father Richard Zula
Zula was a member of the ring of pedophile priests to which Zirwas had referred. Ordained in 1966, he faced a slew of accusations before taking a leave of absence in 1987. Zula ultimately withdrew from ministry in 1996. He was the only Pittsburg case cited in the grand jury report to face criminal charges.
According to the report, the Pittsburgh diocese received a complaint in 1987 stating that Zula had engaged in a violent sexual activity with a minor, and that three other non-priest adult males had participated.
Zula was then sent to an institute for evaluation, during which he admitted that “I got involved in some inappropriate sexual behavior and my bishop has sent me here for an evaluation.” Yet despite notes from the institution saying Zula was “very sexually promiscuous and needy,” the grand jury provided notes and letters from the diocese with proposals for Zula’s reassignment.
The report states that Zula would have been placed back into ministry had a civil lawsuit not been filed in 1988 by a victim, who charged that both he and his brother had been abused by Zula.
An arrest warrant was issued for Zula that year. Due to the diocese’s failure to properly inform civil authorities of previous accusations against Zula, Wuerl received a letter from the Western Regional Office of Children, Youth, and Families (WROCYF) saying the diocese was forbidden to conduct their own internal investigations into whether or not to report abuse and was required to report it “immediately.”
The jury then referenced letters exchanged between Wuerl and the WROCYF, saying there was a dispute about whether the mandates applied to diocesan personnel.
In March 1989, Wuerl authorized a confidential settlement between the diocese and the family of the victim and his brother for a $500,000 sum, with an additional $400,000 to be paid out over 30 years. The settlement, the report said, contained a confidentiality agreement prohibiting victims from discussing the settlement or the reasons for it with third parties, unless the diocese approved. It also released the bishop, at the time Wuerl, and the Catholic Church from any liability.
Later that year, as Zula was preparing for a sentencing hearing, another allegation was made by a mother whose son received advances from Zula, yet this complaint was not reported to the police.
The report also found the diocese had paid for a doctor to evaluate Zula. The diagnosis was that the priest had a “passive-dependent” personality and was not likely to initiate sexual activity, indicating that the victims had pursued him rather than vice-versa.
Although this review was used as testimony in Zula’s sentencing hearing, in 1990 Zula was sentenced to two years in state prison, during which the Pittsburgh diocese agreed to set aside $500 per month until his release. When he finally got out in 1992, his monthly payments were increased to $750 a month and he received a check from the diocese just over $11.500.
In 1993, Wuerl received a letter from another victim describing abuse by Zula when he was a minor, which included having the victim undress and kneel naked with his hands tied behind his back as Zula hit him with a whip and leather straps.
When Zula was finally removed from ministry in 1996, the diocese continued to pay $750 a month with medical coverage. In January 2001 another victim came forward with similar allegations, yet in December of that year, the Pittsburgh diocese increased Zula’s payments to $1,000 a month.
In an Aug. 14 statement after the grand jury report’s release, Wuerl said that while the report is critical of some of his actions, it “confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
Wuerl expressed hope that “a just assessment” of his past and present actions, as well as his commitment to protecting children, “will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.”