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  Diocesan Cover-up Alleged in Sex Abuse Cases:
Wuerl, Bevilacqua Targeted in Lawsuit

By Ann Rodgers arodgers@post-gazette.com
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh PA]
July 1, 2004

Six new complaints have been filed against the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, alleging that it covered up child sexual abuse accusations against five priests, one of whom was a prominent pastor in Mt. Lebanon.

The Rev. George Wilt, 72, who retired in May 2003 after 35 years at St. Bernard parish, is accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl whom he was supposed to be counseling. The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said he would have no comment about Wilt until diocesan officials had seen the complaint. A call to Wilt's residence was not returned.

No year is given for the alleged abuse in any of the complaints filed yesterday by attorneys Richard Serbin of Altoona and Alan Perer of Pittsburgh. However, their news release said that all of the cases were too old for the statute of limitations, which for most offenses committed prior to August 2002 is the victim's 20th birthday.

For that reason, Serbin and Perer are not suing the accused molesters but the diocese, Bishop Donald Wuerl and former Pittsburgh bishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. They claim that their clients only discovered within the past two years that the bishops had conspired to cover up child sexual abuse. Since January, Serbin and Perer have filed 25 complaints involving 14 priests and former priests.

These lawsuits offer no evidence that diocesan leaders failed to respond to abuse allegations, said a statement Lengwin released last night.

Some claims were impossible to investigate because the priests had died and others were never brought to the diocese. But when accusations were brought against men still in the priesthood, they were permanently removed from ministry, it said.

"The Diocese of Pittsburgh strongly affirms that under the leadership of Bishop Wuerl, there has been no conspiracy to knowingly shuffle around from parish to parish priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, nor has there been any conspiracy to hide those priests accused," the statement said.

Three of the five named yesterday were named previously. The new names were Wilt and the Rev. Edward Smith, who diocesan officials say was a Holy Spirit Father who died in 1957.

Smith is accused of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl. Although Smith served at Sacred Heart parish in Emsworth, the diocese keeps no personnel records on religious order priests and refers complaints to their religious superiors, Lengwin said. Attempts to reach the superior of the Holy Spirit Fathers yesterday were unsuccessful.

The others named were:

The former Rev. John Hoehl, who was headmaster of Quigley Catholic High School in Baden from 1971 to 1985, resigned from the priesthood after Wuerl banned him from ministry in 1988 due to sexual abuse allegations. This complaint accuses him of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy at Quigley. Hoehl has been named by six other clients of Serbin and Perer, and in an unrelated suit filed in 2001.

The Rev. Lawrence O'Connell, is accused of abusing two female students at St. Gabriel School in Whitehall, one of whom was 7 years old when the abuse began. According to Lengwin, O'Connell died in 1986, and the diocese had never received a child sexual abuse allegation against him until Serbin filed a complaint in April on behalf of a different accuser. The Rev. Andrew Suran is accused of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl at St. Michael parish in Braddock. According to Lengwin, Suran died in 1971 and a complaint Serbin filed in April was also the first child sexual abuse allegation it had heard against him.

(Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416)

 
 

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