PA Grand Jury Report: Cdl. Wuerl Protected Predator Priests

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by Christine Niles, M.St. (Oxon.), J.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 14, 2018   

Wuerl's name appears 169 times in the report

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (ChurchMilitant.com) - The long-awaited Pennsylvania grand jury report published Tuesday reveals that Cdl. Donald Wuerl, former bishop of Pittsburgh, not only shuffled around notorious predator priests —  including one involved in a sadomasochistic pederast ring — he even paid one off in exchange for his silence.

The 884-page report, blocked for more than a month after two dozen clerics appealed to prevent its public release, was issued in redacted form Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, and reveals a vast network of more than 300 predator priests who abused hundreds of male teens, with bishops covering up the abuse. One third of all named priests come from Pittsburgh — a total of 99.

The report shows that Wuerl, as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988–2006, transferred and reassigned priests he knew to have abused male teens, hiding information from police and even paying one priest off in exchange for his silence on priestly misconduct.

Among the most shocking cases was that of Fr. George Zirwas, found dead in his Havana, Cuba apartment in May 2001, murdered by a gay prostitute.

Fr. George Zirwas

Although the diocese remained tightlipped about Zirwas' death, refusing to discuss the details, later reports revealed Zirwas had led a "flamboyant" homosexual lifestyle in Havana, living with his younger Cuban boyfriend, even facilitating foreign sex trafficking, hooking up American tourists with male Cuban prostitutes. On at least one occasion another Pittsburgh priest had visited Zirwas in Havana.

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Fr. George Zirwas with his Cuban boyfriend

and their dogs, Taco and Tico

The Pittsburgh diocese had received complaints about Zirwas as early as 1987, just one year before Wuerl came to Pittsburgh. It received two more complaints in November 1988, after Wuerl had already been installed, with claims involving the fondling of a 16-year-old boy's genitals, and another involving sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old male. 

In spite of the complaints, Wuerl only sent Zirwas away for treatment, placing him back in active ministry on his return, where he was shuffled from parish to parish for another decade. 

In 1991, Wuerl received yet another complaint about Zirwas from a male claiming the priest had groped him, yet Wuerl left Zirwas to continue in active ministry, only placing him on a permanent leave of absence in 1995. Zirwas moved down to Florida, where he continued to be supported financially by the diocese.

From there, he demanded that his monthly stipend be increased in exchange for keeping quiet about other priestly sexual misconduct. Incredibly, Wuerl agreed.

Wuerl's Pay-Out in Exchange for Silence

The grand jury report found that in 1996, Zirwas informed the diocese "he had knowledge of other Pittsburgh Diocese priests' involvement in illegal sexual activity."

"In exchange for this information, he demanded that his sustenance payments be increased," the report notes.


 

Wuerl told him that if he wanted to receive the payout, he would have to write a statement either naming the priests involved, or otherwise falsely stating that he had "no knowledge" of their misconduct.

"After Zirwas disavowed any knowledge of priest involvement in illegal sexual activity in a letter to the Diocese," the grand jury report states, "he was granted an additional financial stipend and his sustenance payments were continued."

Priest Pederast Ring

Zirwas had been connected to a priest pederast ring that involved drugs, alcohol and sadomasochistic acts involving whips and chains used on two teen altar boys, this taking place partly under Wuerl's tenure.

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Gold cross and chain given to teen altar boys

chosen by priest pederast ring for sex abuse

The grand jury report states:

During the course of this investigation, the Grand Jury uncovered a ring of predatory priests operating within the Diocese who shared intelligence or information regarding victims as well as exchanging the victims amongst themselves. This ring also manufactured child pornography on Diocesan property, including parishes and rectories. This group included: Zirwas, Francis Pucci, Robert Wolk, and Richard Zula. This group of priests used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.

The boys specially chosen for the priests' abuse were given gifts of gold crosses on chains, which allowed the priests to identify which ones had been groomed for abuse.

One of the victims, "George," who testified before the grand jury, said Zirwas and his priest friends had asked him to get on the bed and remove his shirt and pants, and eventually his underwear, exposing his genitals. The priests claimed they were doing a study on how Christ would have looked on the cross, and took photos of George, which they kept in a file with other teen pornography.

Not only did the diocese under Wuerl know about this criminal activity, the grand jury found that the diocese had kept this information away from the police and prosecutor during the investigation in 1988 and 1989.


 

Fr. Ernest Paone

Father Ernest Paone was another priest Wuerl reassigned in spite of knowing of his history of molestation. Paone had been investigated in the 1960s by the district attorney, Robert Masters, who admitted during grand jury testimony in 2017 that he dropped the investigation of Paone out of concerns over Masters' political career; he had wanted to remain on good terms with the bishop.

In 1967, Paone left Pittsburgh to work in the archdiocese of Los Angeles and later San Diego, where he was on a high school faculty. In 1991, in spite of his record of homosexual abuse, Wuerl granted Paone permission to transfer to the diocese of Reno, Las Vegas.

"On November 20, 1991, Zubik wrote to Paone to confirm that Wuerl had approved his new assignment," the report notes.

New allegations of abuse were brought to Wuerl in 1994, and Paone was sent to St. Luke's Institute for a psychiatric evaluation. He was then afterwards allowed to continue in active ministry.

In a confidential letter sent to St. Luke's, the Diocese acknowledged that Paone had been teaching seventh and eighth grade students in the Diocese of San Diego for 19 years. Further, in another confidential memorandum sent from Zubik to Wuerl, Paone's various assignments and sexual abuse complaints were again listed in detail. The Grand Jury noted that this process showed no concern for public safety or the victims of child sexual abuse. The handling of these matters was commonplace. In spite of the complaint, Paone continued in active ministry following his brief evaluation at a church-based treatment facility. 

Paone was retired from active ministry in 2003, but records show he claimed that Wuerl had allowed him to hear confessions from Confirmation-age teens as late as 2006, during which the priest asked inappropriate questions. 

"When questioned about this, Paone told local Diocesan officials that he had received permission from the Diocese," the grand jury report states. "The Diocese dispatched a letter to Paone to remind him that his faculties had been revoked."

Fr. Richard Zula

The report also highlights the sexual misconduct of Fr. Richard Zula, part of the priest pederast/child porn ring, who performed sadomasochastic acts on male teens and was eventually convicted and sent to prison under Wuerl's tenure.

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Fr. Richard Zula

During his sentencing, the diocese paid for a psychiatrist to offer testimony of mitigating factors to reduce Zula's prison time — testimony that included blaming the underage victim for initiating sexual activity, while promoting the priest for his "honesty and sincerity."

"The Grand Jury notes that while Diocesan resources were being used in such a fashion," the report states, "unknowing parishioners were still actively tithing from their income without knowledge that church funds were being used to mitigate a convicted sex offender's sentence."

After Zula was sent to prison in 1990, the diocese promised to set aside $500 a month for him, which would be paid out in a lump sum on his release. in 1992, Wuerl directed that his monthly payments be increased to $750, in addition to providing health insurance.

Even after Zula's release from prison, the diocese continued to receive complaints about his past criminal conduct, including a complaint in 1993 from a victim who claimed the priest had "systematically ask[ed] me to strip, assume a kneeling position, have my hands tied by a closeline type rope and subject me to a beating with various types of whips and leather straps."

In 2001, another victim stepped forward and said Zula had asked him to remove his clothes so he could beat him with a belt. Around this same time, Wuerl authorized increasing Zula's monthly stipend to $1,000, at one point even weighing the possibility of paying him a lump sum of $240,000 for his retirement.

Wuerl Defends Himself

In a CBS News interview Tuesday morning, before release of the grand jury report, Wuerl defended his track record in Pittsburgh in the face of calls that he step down.

"Some people have called for your resignation," said CBS reporter Nikki Battiste. "Do you have any plans to resign?"

"It goes back over 70 years, so I think we have to be realistic and say, this claim goes back over decades and decades," Wuerl said, evading the question. 

Asked directly whether he ever quietly moved priests around, Wuerl cut her off, saying, "That wasn't our process."

The grand jury report, as shown above, belies his claim.


 

Asked whether he was aware of the rumors surrounding homosexual predator Abp. Theodore McCarrick, with a notorious reputation for sexually preying on seminarians, Wuerl answered laughingly, "No, no."

And in a statement issued the day before the grand jury report was released, Wuerl acknowledged that some might be critical of his track record, but hoped "that a just assessment" of his actions of allegedly protecting minors from abuse would "dispel any notions otherwise made by this report," adding that "the vast majority of the cases detailed are from the past, even the distant past."

The result of two years of investigation of six Pennsylvania dioceses, the grand jury report involved interviewing dozens of witnesses and reviewing half a million pages of internal Church documents.

As a result of the grand jury investigation, two priests have been arrested and one removed from ministry. Father John Sweeney of the Greensburg diocese has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, and Fr. David Poulson from Erie has been arrested and charged with felonies for sexually assaulting children. Father James Clark of Greensburg has been removed from ministry for allegations of sex abuse from the 1960s.

At the attorney general's press conference Tuesday afternoon, Church Militant contributor George Neumayr asked Josh Shapiro whether, in light of the revelations about Wuerl, the Pittsburgh diocese should consider removing his name from the Cdl. Donald Wuerl High School.

Shapiro answered, "That's a decision for the Church."

Read the full Pennsylvania grand jury report here.

Contact the archdiocese of Washington, D.C.: communications@adw.org 

 

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