Pa. report on clergy sexual abuse is critical of Cardinal Wuerl

Wuerl defends oversight of Pittsburgh diocese after grand jury report (WTOP's Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON — A report released Tuesday from a Pennsylvania grand jury finds that more than a thousand children were allegedly abused by Catholic priests, and it’s critical of how Washington’s archbishop handled abusers.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro detailed the alleged abuse by 301 in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh, where Cardinal Donald Wuerl had served as bishop for 18 years.

There are multiple instances in the 900-page report where Wuerl is said to have reported priests’ abusive behavior to the Vatican, but also approved the transfer and continued ministry of known offenders.

In addition, the grand jury concluded that Catholic bishops and other diocesan leaders tried to shield the church from bad publicity and financial liability by covering up abuse, failing to report accused clergy to police and discouraging victims from going to law enforcement.

The grand jury said it believes the “real number” of abused children might be “in the thousands” since some records were lost and victims were afraid to come forward. The report said clergy committed the abuse over a period decades, beginning in the mid-1950s.

Victim advocates call the report the largest and most exhaustive such review by any U.S. state. The grand jury scrutinized abuse allegations in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses that, collectively, minister to more than half the state’s 3.2 million Catholics.

Earlier on Tuesday, Wuerl told WTOP that the report painted what calls “a very, very dark picture.”

“It turns out about 5 percent of the priests in Pennsylvania over those 70 years had some allegation against them,” said Wuerl, one of the highest-profile cardinals in the United States.

A third of the priests said to be accused in this report were from the Pittsburgh diocese, where Washington’s archbishop had served as bishop from 1988 through 2006.

Earlier on Tuesday, he defended how abuse allegations were handled under his watch, and said he believed the yet-to-be-released report would support that. But he added that it “doesn’t take away the pain.”

“The priests against whom there were allegations during my time there, those priests we dealt with,” Wuerl said. “I think the report is going to show that we moved very, very quickly, that we acted — I would hope this is going to confirm — that we acted with diligence and concern to prevent any future acts of abuse.”

This included a “zero tolerance” policy for clergy who committed abuse, he told The Associated Press, and a process to address allegations.

Prior to the report’s release, Wuerl said the expected findings served as a reminder that caring for abuse survivors should always be “our very first action.”

“We have to be there for them and with them.”

Father George Zirwas

One particularly horrifying case detailed in the grand jury’s report is that of Father George Zirwas, who was accused of multiple instances of abuse from 1987 to 1995. (As bishop, Wuerl oversaw Zirwas starting in 1988.)

The grand jury found that years earlier, Zirwas had been involved with a ring of other pedophile priests. A victim identified as “George” detailed how he had been told to strip for both the priest who had befriended him (Zirwas) and these other priests when he was a teenager.

“The priests began a conversation about religious statues and asked George to get up on a bed. As the priests watched, they asked George to remove his shirt. They then drew an analogy to the image of Christ on the cross, and told George to remove his pants so that his pose would be more consistent with the image of Christ in a loincloth. At that point, the priests began taking Polaroid pictures of George. As the picture taking continued, the priests directed George to take off his underwear. George was nervous and complied.

“ … George stated that his photographs were added to a collection of similar photographs depicting other teenage boys.”

Those photos, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, were “child porn which they produced and shared on church grounds.” The victim’s testimony to the grand jury was reportedly one of the first times he ever disclosed the abuse, but records revealed the diocese was reportedly aware of the priests’ conduct.

Internal documents detailed complaints from 1987 to 1995 accusing Zirwas of “unwanted sexual contact,” inappropriate touching and groping of underage boys, as well as an incident of providing alcohol to a teen.

“Zirwas continued to function as a priest during this period and was reassigned to several parishes,” the report said. He was sent to a mental hospital for evaluation in December 1988, but upon release continued in the ministry and served in other parishes.

He was placed on a leave of absence in 1994, and then requested an assignment in Miami, saying it was necessary “due to ‘false rumors’” floating around the diocese, according to the grand jury report. At one point, he even threatened legal action against diocese personnel “concerning his relationship to the public scandals which surfaced in 1988,” the grand jury wrote.

“Within days, Zirwas was returned to ministry by Bishop Donald Wuerl,” the report said. Months later, another complaint was made involving the sexual assault of an underage boy and Zirwas was again placed on a leave of absence.

He eventually moved to Florida and then on to Cuba.

Zirwas informed the diocese in 1996 that he knew of other Pittsburgh priests’ involvement in illegal sexual activity, the report found, and “demanded that his sustenance payments be increased” in exchange for that information. Wuerl replied with instructions to provide the names of the priests involved or to “state that he had no knowledge of what he had previously claimed” to get any additional assistance.

The priest then disavowed any knowledge of priests being involved in illegal sexual activity in a letter to the diocese. “Zirwas was granted an additional financial stipend and his sustenance payments were continued,” report said.

“It does not appear that the diocese shared with the police Zirwas’ statement that he had information on other priests’ criminal activity,” the report said.

Zirwas was murdered inside his Havana apartment in 2001.

Extraordinary scope

The Pennsylvania report echoes the findings of many earlier church investigations around the country — and in other Pennsylvania dioceses — in its description of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and church officials’ concealment of it.

What distinguished this probe was its extraordinary scope:

Yet the grand jury’s work might not result in justice for Catholics who say they were molested as children. While the nearly two-year probe has yielded charges against two clergymen — including a priest who has since pleaded guilty, and another who allegedly forced his accuser to say confession after each sex assault — the vast majority of priests already identified as perpetrators are either dead or are likely to avoid arrest because their alleged crimes are too old to prosecute under state law.

The document comes at a time of renewed scrutiny and fresh scandal at the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church. Pope Francis stripped 88-year-old Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of his title and ordered him to a lifetime of prayer and penance amid allegations that McCarrick had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.

In the report, the grand jury accused Wuerl of coining a phrase used to describe the abuse coverup: “Circle of Secrecy.”

A statement issued soon afterward by the Washington Archdiocese denies that they are Wuerl’s words, and that the phrase “did not relate in any way to efforts by the church to cover up allegations of abuse, and that the report used the phrase in a completely different way.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

© 2018 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

Federal News Network Logo

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up