Notification on Hoehl Confirms Removal 16 Years Ago
December 3, 2004
In a decree dated June 16, 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, following the decision of Pope John Paul II, dismissed John S. Hoehl of the Diocese of Pittsburgh from the clerical state and from all priestly obligations.
The decree, received by the diocese on Sept. 10, indicated that there is no appeal of the decision.
The decision appears in a formal public notification on Page 4 of this week's Pittsburgh Catholic.
Father John S. Hoehl served as headmaster of Quigley Catholic High School in Baden from June 1971 to June 1985. In May 1986, a year after he left Quigley, the diocese received its first allegation of sexual abuse against Father Hoehl.
Though Father Hoehl denied the allegation, he was immediately removed from ministry following diocesan policy in place at that time. After an independent, professional recommendation in July 1987 indicated that he should be allowed to continue ministry, he returned to limited work in the diocese for a short time. He formally withdrew from all priestly service on Nov. 29, 1988, when he was informed that his diocesan assignment had been withdrawn.
For 16 years, since November 1988, Hoehl has not been a priest in good standing and has been forbidden to serve in any church ministry or identify himself as a priest.
Hoehl was cited in a series of recent lawsuits filed against the diocese. The lawsuits, filed by attorneys Richard Serbin and Alan Perer, involve allegations against priests already removed from ministry or deceased for many years.
The lawsuits charge that the diocese, Bishop Donald Wuerl and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, when he was bishop of Pittsburgh, engaged in a conspiracy to reassign priests against whom there was a substantiated claim of sexual misconduct with a minor, thereby allowing those individuals to continue to harm children.
The diocese has responded that there is no evidence church leaders failed to protect children once a case of abuse became known to them.
"The Diocese of Pittsburgh is committed to the protection of children in its ministry. The lawsuits are nothing more than another step in a publicity campaign by these attorneys to gain notoriety for litigation regarding a conspiracy that never existed," said Father Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.
The formal notification from Rome that Hoehl is no longer a cleric and is permanently removed from the clerical state follows the "Essential Norms for the Protection of Children and Young People," approved by the bishops of the United States in June 2002 and by the Holy See.
The Rome decree confirms his disciplinary removal from ministry in 1988 by Bishop Wuerl and officially removes Hoehl from the clerical state.
Father Lengwin explained that Hoehl has not functioned as a priest for 16 years and that the notification by the Holy See is a confirmation of that decision and an application of canonical sanctions in such "egregious, public cases."
Father Lengwin noted that the "decree from Rome is the final, formal step in removing him from the clerical state," explaining that such a final step can come only from the Holy See.
"It should be clearly understood," however, "that John Hoehl has not functioned as a priest since he was permanently removed from ministry in 1988," he said.
"At the same time," Father Lengwin said, "it should also be understood that no action can be taken that would remove sacramental ordination itself. The priesthood is always there sacramentally, even if a man is out of a job, out of ministry and removed from the clerical state. Ordination is the same as baptism — no matter what a person does in life, his or her baptism can never be removed or reversed."
Father Lengwin used the analogy of a certified accountant coming to work for his father's business who embezzles funds and the father must fire him.
"He's out of a job and no longer can call himself an accountant," Father Lengwin said, "but he is still his father's son. Nothing can change that."
It is diocesan policy to immediately remove from active ministry any priest accused of the sexual abuse of a minor. All such charges are turned over to civil authorities.
"To our knowledge and under the leadership of Bishop Wuerl, there is no priest serving in ministry today in the diocese against whom there is a substantiated allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor," Father Lengwin concluded.
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