As the nation awaits the release of the bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report, some are wondering whether Washington, D.C.'s Cdl. Donald Wuerl will be the next cleric to fall after Cdl. Theodore McCarrick.
Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh for nearly two decades, from 1988–2006 — one of the six dioceses investigated in the grand jury report. As many as 300 predator priests from all six dioceses are named, but Pittsburgh stands out for supplying the largest share: nearly one third of the total number.
According to reports, at least 90 priests in Pittsburgh alone are implicated in the findings. And — a fact largely unknown to the public — Wuerl was named in multiple lawsuits during his tenure there, accused of conspiring to cover up sex abuse.
Though often portrayed as a bishop tough on sex abuse and years ahead of his time in implementing "zero tolerance," Wuerl's actual history tells a different story.
The strangest case is one early on in his career: a priest pederast ring involving sadomasochism, drugs and teen altar boys. Three of the priests were eventually prosecuted, while the fourth alleged member wound up murdered in a small apartment in Havana, Cuba.
On the morning of May 27, 2001, Fr. George Zirwas was found dead in an apartment on Calle Mazón, just east of the University of Havana. His Cuban boyfriend of three years, Ulises Sierra Tabares (a nurse in a psychiatric ward at Havana's Manuel Fajardo Hospital), discovered the body.
"I looked in," Tabares recounted, "and he was lying face down on the bed, and his neck and the side of his face I could see — the skin was dark, black. I ran out into the street in a panic. I was calling, 'George is dead! George is dead!' It was the only thing that came out of my mouth."
News of the 47-year-old American priest's death reached the U.S. State Department, which worked with the Swedish Embassy in Havana to bring his body back to the United States.
Abel Medina Valdes, a Cuban "rent boy" Zirwas had picked up the night before and brought back to the apartment, would later confess to murdering the priest by injecting an animal tranquilizer into the base of his neck, causing respiratory and cardiac paralysis.
Details also emerged of Zirwas' life in Havana; though the diocese claimed he spent his time ministering to the poor there, rumors swirled that Zirwas had led a "flamboyant" gay lifestyle, and had even facilitated foreign sex trafficking, serving as liaison to American men looking to hook up with young Cuban prostitutes. On at least one occasion, Tabares witnessed a fellow Pittsburgh priest visiting Zirwas, although he did not reveal the name.
The diocese itself remained tightlipped, Wuerl's spokesman, Fr. Ronald Lengwin, only revealing that Zirwas had been placed on administrative leave years earlier, though refusing to reveal why.
It was later discovered Zirwas had also taken two leaves of absence during a priestly career marked by frequent shuffling from parish to parish. Worse, Zirwas was associated with a pederast ring involving three other Pittsburgh priests.
The abuse, involving diocesan priests Frs. Robert Wolk, Richard Zula and Francis Pucci, took place over the course of six years in the mid-1980s, and involved sadomasochistic acts with whips, chains and drugs used on two teen altar boys, at times in a church basement or rectory, the boys furnished with drugs or alcohol and passed around among the priests for sex.
Although the men were removed from ministry shortly after Wuerl was installed in Pittsburgh, he never went to law enforcement about the pederast ring. It was the family's attorney, F. Peter Dixon, who initiated contact with Bethel Park Police.
When law enforcement showed up to Wolk's parish to arrest him, he was nowhere to be found; Wuerl had sent him and Pucci out of state, to a treatment center in Maryland (the notorious St. Luke Institute, which routinely showed gay porn to patients and was run by Fr. Edward Arsenault III, convicted and sentenced in 2014 of embezzling $200,000, which he spent on gay lovers). The police had similar difficulty tracking down Zula, as the diocese would not reveal the whereabouts of a priest "on sick leave."
All three eventually turned themselves in.
Zirwas' name first surfaced during victim testimony at Zula's trial in 1989. One of the teen boys said he had been taken to a suite at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County in 1984, where he and Zula drank whiskey and beer and performed sex acts in the bedroom. The victim claimed Zirwas was present at the suite, alone in the next room; he had arrived earlier that day with two other boys in tow.
The county prosecutor filed a total of 150 counts of abuse against Wolk, Zula and Pucci. During the investigation, Washington County District Attorney John Pettit complained that Wuerl was uncooperative.
"It was not the spirit of cooperation we would like to see," Pettit said, calling it "minimal at best."
"I don't want this to be misinterpreted as a witch hunt," Pettit said at the time. "But we would be sticking our heads in the sand to believe these are the only three cases."
They turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg, with multiple lawsuits involving dozens of priests dogging Wuerl's nearly 20 years in Pittsburgh.
Wolk and Zula ended up going to prison, while Pucci's case was settled out of court because the statute of limitations had run. Pucci was never laicized, and was allowed to remain in ministry and offer Mass for the Sisters of the Divine Redeemer in Elizabeth Township. He remained on the diocesan payroll until his death in April 2002, just one year after Zirwas was found murdered.
In spite of the testimony incriminating Zirwas, Wuerl kept him in active ministry, moving him frequently through multiple parishes, until February 1996, when the diocese abruptly placed him on administrative leave, barring him from performing any priestly functions. Zirwas continued to receive a pension and health insurance. He eventually bought a home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, before making trips to Costa Rica and eventually winding up in Cuba.
Interestingly, in 2016, as the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation was just getting underway and State Attorney General Josh Shapiro was subpoenaing documents related to Wuerl's time in Pittsburgh, Wuerl issued a widely publicized apology to a sex abuse victim.
Admitting he had dismissed a former seminarian's claims of abuse at the hands of a priest, Wuerl wrote, "I was among those not immediately persuaded by some concerns he raised. I have since learned to be less hesitant in taking at face value such allegations."
Critics claim the timing and publicity of the apology were no coincidence, and that Wuerl was doing "damage control" ahead of a potentially damning grand jury report.
The priest in question was Fr. Anthony Cipolla, whom Wuerl eventually removed from ministry, even waging a high-stakes battle with the Vatican to ensure Cipolla could not return to the priesthood.
The court case involving Cipolla was only one among multiple lawsuits filed against Wuerl for conspiracy to cover up sex abuse. In 2004, six lawsuits involving 14 priests were filed against the diocese, accusing Wuerl and Bevilacqua (Wuerl's predecessor) of knowingly sheltering predator priests.
The diocese rejected the accusations, the spokesman characterizing the lawsuits as a "public relations blitz and an attorney-generated media extravaganza."
Among those named in the 2004 lawsuits was Fr. John Hoehl, accused of molesting a 14-year-old boy at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden. He was sent away for several months of treatment in 1988, and on the recommendation of the treatment center, placed back in active ministry by Wuerl the same year, as a hospital chaplain. Law enforcement was never notified of the abuse allegations.
Justifying the diocese's failure to report, diocesan spokesman Fr. Lengwin said, "Our role is not to determine whether someone has committed a crime, but whether they are suitable for ministry."
After the criminal convictions of Wolk, Zula and Pucci, Wuerl thought twice about Hoehl's assignment and removed him from ministry. Hoehl shortly afterwards resigned from the priesthood. He remained on the diocesan payroll, however, until his laicization 16 years later.
After Hoehl left Pittsburgh, he set up shop in Weirton, West Virginia, selling himself as a "counselor" to adolescents. A local newsteam along with four of Hoehl's victims outed him, his license eventually revoked by the West Virginia Board of Counselors.
In 1992, two families accused Fr. Edward Huff of sexually abusing their children. Wuerl did not inform police. Instead, he sent Huff away for treatment for 10 months — only to put him back in active ministry on his return, as a chaplain to chaplains under the supervision of Lengwin.
But within two months of the assignment, several more families complained that Huff had molested their teen sons years before. Wuerl sent Huff back for treatment in January 1993, the priest resigning from the priesthood the next month.
Wuerl waited until March of 1993 to inform law enforcement of the accusations against Huff. He was eventually tried and convicted of indecent assault and corruption of minors, and sentenced to up to five years in prison.
The 2003 case of Fr. Henry Krawczyk, which involved the accidental death of a teen, also demonstrates the diocese's failure to follow up on complaints of sexual misconduct.
Krawczyk was placed on administrative leave after a 19-year-old football player died in his church in Homestead. Drunk from cocktails mixed by the priest, the teen fell 25 feet to his death after climbing through a crawlspace in the ceiling. Krawczyk had had a reputation for partying with minors, and investigation revealed that, under Wuerl, the diocese had been notified several times over the course of years of his inappropriate conduct, including alleged homosexual advances on young men.
Although the diocese had sent him away for psychiatric evaluation, Wuerl placed him back in ministry when he returned — until the 2003 accident winding up in the young man's death.
Father John Wellinger was another priest named in the $1.25 million settlement, accused of abusing several male teens. At least two suicides are linked to Wellinger.
The diocese has issued contradicting statements, Lengwin claiming they knew of no complaints about Wellinger until 1995 — but testimony from Wellinger's parish secretary, Marta Placek, shows she had alerted the diocese to his inappropriate conduct in the late 1980s.
After discovering hundreds of dollars in parish bills from phone sex hotlines, she confronted Wellinger, who said the calls were placed by a teen boy living in his rectory — a fact the priest had tried to keep secret. She went to the diocese with the information, only to be written off by Lengwin as "a gossip."
But a 1995 report of sex abuse could not be so easily dismissed; Wellinger was accused of molesting an 11-year-old altar boy. His parents trusted the diocese when it told them Wellinger had been removed from ministry, but a 2004 lawsuit claims the diocese kept him in ministry for seven more years. Although the diocese denies the claims, records show Wuerl did not remove Wellinger from active ministry until 2003.
Pittsburgh journalist Mike Ference has detailed the facts involving the shooting of his son Adam by Robert Butler in 1989, who afterwards shot himself. Police investigation revealed Butler was linked to Wellinger: The priest had molested him when he was an altar boy at Wellinger's parish.
The investigation itself was quashed for unknown reasons, Mike Ference claiming that Wuerl himself was behind it. Although the diocese has rejected the charge, Ference has never stopped believing Wuerl actively thwarted the investigation.
In response to a Church Militant query, the communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. said Wuerl had submitted written testimony to the Pennsylvania attorney general during the grand jury investigation. When Church Militant asked whether Wuerl — like other bishops in Pennsylvania — had issued a statement pressing for the swift publication of the report (held up for weeks on account of legal appeals from priests), no response was given.
Wuerl was a close and longtime associate of McCarrick, who raised millions of dollars for his archdiocese — but like his other friends, he's leapt on the bandwagon of clerical denials, as prelates scramble to distance themselves from the disgraced cardinal, proclaiming ignorance of his sexual predation.
But critics aren't buying it, one priest writing in disgust in an article titled "If I Knew, So Did They": "In one after another official statement, bishops are treating their priests and the laity as imbeciles who have no ability to see through yet another charade."
The outrage is palpable, the McCarrick scandal generating hundreds of articles and thousands of comments on social media. The general consensus seems to be: No more apologies, no more discussions, no more promises to change policies and protocols; nothing less than large-scale resignations will do, and a new paradigm that will no longer tolerate this culture of cover-up.
His proclamations of ignorance aside, Wuerl's mixed legacy in Pittsburgh — a legacy the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report will more fully expose — leave some expecting Wuerl to be the next cardinal to fall.