PA Grand Jury: Cdl. Wuerl Paid Hush Money to Child Porn Priest

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by Christine Niles, M.St. (Oxon.), J.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 15, 2018   

Fr. George Zirwas got bonus payout in exchange for silence on other priests' criminal sexual conduct

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Among the most disturbing details in the 884-page Pennsylvania grand jury report was that then-Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh gave a priest involved in a child porn ring extra money in exchange for the priest's silence. Not only that, Wuerl gave the priest a glowing eulogy at his funeral in 2001, even posthumously restoring him to full priestly status.

Page 233 of the grand jury report, released Tuesday, reveals that in 1996, "[Father George] Zirwas informed the [Pittsburgh] Diocese that 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."

Image

Fr. George Zirwas with his Cuban boyfriend

and their dogs Taco and Tico

"In response to this request, Wuerl instructed him to document in writing the names of the priests involved, or, state that he had no knowledge of what he had previously claimed," the grand jury report continues. "Wuerl advised that this action had to be undertaken before Zirwas could receive any additional assistance."

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

That stipend was used to fund Zirwas' homosexual lifestyle in Cuba, where he lived for several years in a Havana apartment with his younger Cuban boyfriend, and served as liaison to foreigners looking to hook up with male Cuban prostitutes.

It was Zirwas' boyfriend who found his body on the morning of May 27, 2001, murdered by a Cuban rent boy Zirwas had picked up and brought back the night before. The rent boy, Abel Medina Valdes, later confessed to killing the priest by shooting animal tranquilizer into the base of his neck, causing cardiac paralysis. Valdes also confessed to having murdered two other foreigners. 

A Priest Pederast Ring

Zirwas' case is even more bizarre when it's revealed he was part of a pederast ring in Pittsburgh involving four priests who used whips and chains on teen altar boys, who were plied with drugs and alcohol and passed around for sex.

Image

Gold chain and cross Zirwas would give

to victims of sex abuse

George, one of Zirwas' victims, testified before the grand jury that when he was 15, Zirwas took him to a parish rectory where three other priests were present:

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 recalled that either Zula or Pucci operated the camera. He stated that all of the men giggled and stated that the pictures would be used as a reference for new religious statues for the parishes. George testified that this occurred before he turned 18 years old and that his genitals were exposed in the photographs. George stated that his photographs were added to a collection of similar photographs depicting other teenage boys.

The teen boys specially chosen for grooming by this group of priests were given gifts of gold chains with a cross. The necklace served as a sign indicating which boys had been picked for sexual abuse.

"They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization," the grand jury noted.

Wuerl never told police or the prosecutor in the late 1980s any of the information he had learned about the priest pederast ring, Washington District Attorney John Pettit complaining at the time that Wuerl was uncooperative.

A Long History of Abuse

The diocese first started receiving sex abuse complaints against Zirwas as early as 1987. A second complaint in early 1988 involving inappropriate touching of a young man saw Zirwas sent away to a local hospital for treatment. On his return, he was placed back in active ministry — only for two more complaints to surface in November 1988, after Wuerl was installed as bishop of Pittsburgh.

Image

Cdl. Wuerl standing outside Cardinal Wuerl North

Catholic High School in Pittsburgh. A petition by students

is demanding that the school remove Wuerl's name.

A 16-year-old boy had said Zirwas had fondled his genitals, and a 17-year-old boy came forward and said he had also been sexually abused by the priest. Wuerl sent Zirwas away to St. Luke's Institute and on his release placed him back in active ministry. Wuerl never reported the priest's crimes to law enforcement. 

In 1991, a young man told the diocese Zirwas had groped his genitals. Wuerl simply transferred the priest to a new parish — his third parish assignment in two years.

After two more parish assignments, a victim came forward in 1995 claiming Zirwas had performed oral sex on him when he was 15. Wuerl did not go to law enforcement, instead placing Zirwas on a second leave of absence.

In 1996, diocesan records show that an outraged mother of one of Zirwas' victims met with the diocese to complain that the bishop had allowed the priest to continue in active ministry for years, in spite of abuse her son had suffered at the priest's hands in 1988, and in spite of promises from the diocese that the situation "had been handled."

Two of the priests in the pederast ring were eventually prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison. Nothing ever happened to Zirwas, even though his name came up in court testimony in the late 1980s linking him to the pederast ring.

Instead, Zirwas spent his retirement in comfort, living off a monthly stipend from the diocese (paid by Catholic laity), using it to fund his homosexual lifestyle in Cuba. His boyfriend would later reveal that Zirwas was a fixture on the gay scene in Havana, his apartment a popular stopping place for foreign visitors. Meanwhile, the diocese was telling the public Zirwas was ministering to the poor in Cuba.

A Glowing Eulogy

The U.S. State Department worked with the Swedish embassy in Havana to get Zirwas' body back to the United States, and his funeral was held in June 2001, presided over by the bishop of Pittsburgh. He was accompanied by Bp. William Winter and 21 priests.

"The one thing we know is that George Zirwas responded to God's call" in the priesthood, Wuerl said during his homily. Wuerl went on to praise the accused pederast for his "kindness" as a pastor, going on to console mourners that the priest had gone to Heaven.

The funeral Mass indicated "great confidence that Father George will experience new life in Christ," Wuerl said.

He restored Zirwas to the full honor of priesthood, calling him by the title "Father Zirwas," a name the priest had been forbidden to use ever since he was placed on leave in 1995 following yet another allegation of sex abuse.


 

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