Pennsylvania’s predatory priests: The Cardinal Wuerl connection

Prelate, due in Dublin this week, is criticised in a damning US report

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is in Dublin this week to address the World Meeting of Families on Wednesday. Archbishop of Washington since 2006, he succeeded Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (88) who, last month, was removed from public ministry and resigned from the College of Cardinals following allegations that he had abused minors and seminarians.

In 2006 Cardinal McCarrick was in negotiations with two New Jersey dioceses about settlements involving his victims. Last month Cardinal Wuerl said he did not know "about these confidential settlements until this most recent credible and substantiated allegation against Cardinal McCarrick was made public".

Cardinal Wuerl, however, was bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1988 to 2006. His handling of child sexual abuse allegations there was examined in the grand jury report published last Tuesday.

It is not flattering.


It found “wholesale institutional failure that endangered the welfare of children” in all six Pennsylvania dioceses investigated, including Pittsburgh. It chose three examples from cases involving 99 abuser priests there as “a window into the conduct” of bishops “and the crimes they permitted to occur on their watch”.

The cases concerned Fr Ernest Paone, Fr George Zirwas, and Fr Richard Zula. All three involved Cardinal Wuerl.

Up to 1988, when Cardinal Wuerl became bishop of Pittsburgh, Paone continued in ministry with approval from the diocese “in spite of its knowledge he was a child molester,” the grand jury found.

Sent for treatment

This continued when bishop Wuerl took over. In 1991 bishop Wuerl granted Paone's request to serve in the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas. Following another abuse complaint against the priest in 1994, he was sent for treatment.

In a confidential letter to the treatment centre, Pittsburgh diocese acknowledged that Paone had previously been “teaching seventh- and eighth-grade children in the diocese of San Diego for 19 years. The priest’s various assignments and sexual abuse complaints were listed in detail.”

The grand jury found that this “showed no concern for public safety or the victims of child sexual abuse”.

Further complaints emerged against Paone. In February 2003 bishop Wuerl accepted the priest’s resignation from ministry. As the grand jury report put it: “Approximately 41 years after the diocese learned that Paone was sexually assaulting children, he was finally retired from active ministry.”

It added that “the clear and present threat that Paone posed to children was hidden and kept secret from parishioners in three states. Wuerl’s statements had been meaningless without any action.”

Referring to a “disturbing disdain for victims” in the six Pennsylvania dioceses it investigated, the grand jury selected a case from Pittsburgh diocese as example.

In March 1989 bishop Wuerl authorised a confidential settlement with the family of two brothers abused by Zula

There, it said, “church officials dismissed an incident of abuse on the ground that the 15-year-old had ‘pursued’ the priest and ‘literally seduced’ him into a relationship. After the priest was arrested, the church submitted an evaluation on his behalf to the court.

“The evaluation acknowledged that the priest had admitted to ‘sado-masochistic’ activities with several boys – but the sadomasochism was only ‘mild’, and at least the priest was not ‘psychotic’.”

Arrest warrant

The case concerned Fr Richard Zula, for whom an arrest warrant was issued in November 1988. He was charged “with over 130 counts related to child sexual abuse”. In March 1989 bishop Wuerl authorised a confidential settlement with the family of two brothers abused by Zula.

At a court hearing in autumn 1989 Zula pleaded guilty on two counts. Then, as the grand jury report concluded, “the diocese was placed on notice that the services it had procured for Zula were being used as mitigation evidence at Zula’ s sentencing. Moreover, these assertions blamed the child victim rather than the adult criminal.” Sentencing was in 1990 and the priest served more than two years.

Another case concerned Fr George Zirwas, who was assigned to eight different parishes in Pittsburgh diocese until 1995, when he was placed on leave of absence, where he remained until he died in 2001.

In 2016, when seeking documents from Pittsburgh diocese, the grand jury found that “some original documents related to deceased priests were intentionally destroyed by the diocese”. However, as canon law required “the maintenance of a summary of the facts and any text of a definitive judgement”, so it was in the case of Zirwas.

From these the grand jury learned that “the diocese was aware of complaints against Zirwas for sexually abusing children as early as 1987. Additional complaints were received between 1987 and 1995. However, Zirwas continued to function as a priest during this period and was reassigned to several parishes.”

In December 1994 Zirwas “was placed on a leave of absence for ‘personal reasons’”. In the summer of 1995, after he threatened legal action, Zirwas “was returned to ministry by bishop Donald Wuerl”.

In November 1995 a 15-year-old boy complained that the priest sexually abused him. Zirwas was again placed "on a leave of absence for 'personal reasons'". He moved to Florida and then Cuba.

In 1996 Zirwas told the diocese he knew of other Pittsburgh priests who had abused children and would reveal these if his allowance was increased.

Bishop 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.” He advised Zirwas this had to happen before he “could receive any additional assistance.”

Financial stipend

The priest then “disavowed any knowledge of priest involvement in illegal sexual activity in a letter to the diocese” and “was granted an additional financial stipend and his sustenance payments were continued”.

He "continued to work with the poor and needy in Cuba until May 2001, when he was murdered inside his Havana apartment", the report found.

However, in the course of its Pittsburgh investigation, the grand jury found that there was indeed “a ring of predatory priests operating within the diocese who shared intelligence or information regarding victims as well as exchanging the victims amongst themselves”. They “used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims”.

In his evidence to the grand jury one such victim, “George”, told of being introduced to this “ring of predatory priests” by Zirwas. George recalled that these priests gave favoured boys special gifts, “specifically, gold cross necklaces”. The grand jury concluded these gold crosses “were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitised to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimisation”.

George wondered how none of this “created suspicion on the part of diocesan administrators”. However, the report concluded that “the grand jury’s review of records revealed that the diocese was aware of the conduct of these predatory priests and the records corroborated George’s testimony”.

Cardinal Wuerl will give the keynote address in the RDS at 2.30pm next Wednesday afternoon, on “The Welfare of the Family is Decisive for the Future of the World”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times