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  W. Mifflin Case to Test Church Conspiracy Allegation

By Ann Rodgers arodgers@post-gazette.com
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh PA]
July 5, 2004

In 1995, former parishioners accused John W. Wellinger, then pastor at Holy Spirit parish in West Mifflin, of molesting their son. They say diocesan officials told them he would be removed from ministry.

The claim, contained in a lawsuit, goes on to say that, contrary to what they were told, Wellinger continued in the priesthood for up to seven more years. The diocese, for its part, insists Wellinger has not functioned as a priest since the 1995 accusation.

The suit was brought not against Wellinger but against the diocese for an alleged conspiracy to cover up child sexual abuse. It cites 14 priests and former priests, but Wellinger's case was chosen to test the suit's conspiracy theory. There will be a hearing tomorrow.

While the accusation that Wellinger kissed, fondled and performed a sex act on the 11-year-old altar boy in 1989 is apparently the suit's most recent case, it was chosen because it was typical and because the accuser believes the bishop lied to his parents in 1995, said Diane Perer, an attorney working on the case.

"In fact, they only learned after their lawsuit was filed that he had not been dismissed," she said. "It was an egregious example of misrepresentation on the part of the diocese."

The diocese announced in 2003 that Wellinger "withdrew from ministry." That was only a technicality, diocesan officials say, since he was banned in 1995 from wearing priests's clothing, calling himself "Father," celebrating public Mass or in any way identifying himself as a legitimate priest.

Wellinger had taken a personal leave for health reasons in June 1995, four months before the family made its accusation. After that, Wellinger had no permission to function as a priest, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

Wellinger has been living in Clairton for several years, and court records reflect a severe problem with alcohol. A neighbor, who said Wellinger was there when his family moved in in 1999, said he had never seen him dressed as a priest. "I've seen him wearing some strange things, but I've never seen him in black and white," Brian McCorkle said.

In early 2003, when the diocese reviewed its files for compliance with the U.S. bishops' child protection charter, Lengwin said, Wellinger's status was changed to "administrative leave."

In Catholic theology, even a priest who has been laicized by the pope remains a priest in the eyes of God, but not necessarily a priest in good standing.

According to the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, the diocese's chief canon lawyer, the rules for administrative leave are the same as those for "personal leave," in that the person is barred from presenting himself as a legitimate priest. When Wellinger did not respond to being placed on administrative leave, he was automatically declared "withdrawn from ministry," DiNardo said.

"Wellinger was out for a long time," he said. "It really doesn't make a lot of difference [what it was called], because the reality is that once he was on leave, then, in fact, he was no longer a priest in good standing."

Lawyer Richard Serbin believes the diocese is playing word games. "I'm always amused by the terminology that is placed on a priest -- active ministry, public ministry, retired. There are all kinds of gimmicks," he said. "I've been told lots of things by dioceses and found a lot of it to be untrue."

Wellinger, now 59, served at eight parishes between 1970 and 1995, but his first and only pastorate was at Holy Spirit from 1987 to 1991.

His problem with alcohol surfaced publicly in 1997, when he received 18 months' probation for driving under the influence. In 2001, a North Carolina man sued him, saying that Wellinger was drunk and driving too fast through the Giant Eagle parking lot in West Mifflin when Wellinger struck his car, causing debilitating back injuries. The suit ended in arbitration.

Last September, Wellinger was cited with a blood alcohol level of 0.21 -- more than twice the legal limit driving -- after a woman called West Homestead police to report an erratic driver. The detective who pulled him over noted that Wellinger had his pants on backward. Wellinger pleaded guilty and spent three days in May in the county jail, 45 days under house arrest, and was fined $1,894.

Last week he was pleasant when a reporter went to his well-tended house in Clairton. But he declined to answer questions related to the suit.

The suit also says that in 1995, diocesan officials referred the victim --- by then 17 --- to a "Dr. Kraft" for counseling. Kraft, it says, blamed the boy for the abuse.

Dr. William Kraft, who teaches psychology at Carlow College and consults with many dioceses on responding to victims of child sexual abuse, denied blaming the boy.

"My first response is one of sadness and hurt, because that would be so contrary to my values and vision," Kraft said. "I'm sorry I was somehow misconstrued that way. I wish that some day maybe the victim will come to me to do some reconciliation."

Kraft said diocesan officials had never pressured him or tried to pry into what transpired in his office. "If Wuerl is criticized," he said, "he is criticized for the other extreme of being too tough with zero tolerance."

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

 
 

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