Vatican Clears Priest, Wuerl Rejects Verdict
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
March 21, 1993
In a rare move against a bishop, the Vatican's highest court has ruled that Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh improperly removed a priest who stands accused of molesting a teen-age boy. That court has ordered the priest reinstated.
The Rev. Anthony Cipolla's advocates say this vindicates the priest, who faces a May trial in a civil lawsuit filed by a 24-year-old man who contends that Cipolla molested him between the ages of 13 and 17. It is the policy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette not to name people who report being sexually abused.
Despite this ruling from the Supreme Court of the Roman Catholic Church, Wuerl says he will not return Cipolla to ministry while the trial is pending. He believes the court — the Signatura — may have based its decision on "inaccuracies," and he plans to reopen the case.
"The gist of it is that Father Cipolla is fully exonerated," said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a renowned professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Orsy is not involved in the case, but interpreted the seven-page Latin verdict for the Post-Gazette, which obtained a copy of the secret March 9 ruling.
"The decision is quite harsh on the bishop. It explicitly says a number of times that he did not observe procedure and he did not consider the evidence properly," Orsy said.
Some say the Vatican has dealt a blow to a courageous bishop who tried to protect parishioners. Others say it's a case of an overzealous bishop trampling the rights of a falsely accused priest to dodge a lawsuit.
Prominent Catholic priest, sociologist and writer Andrew Greeley is among the former.
"I think the Signatura has made a terrible mistake. If they want to do all in their power to destroy the church in the United States, they've done it. If this becomes a precedent, they will have to reassign to parishes all these pedophile priests," Greeley said. "I assume that all the higher powers or cardinals would go off to Rome" to protest.
Greeley called Wuerl "a good man, an honest man, a brave man and a gentleman. We disagree on many things, but I don't doubt his integrity or his honor. He is acting bravely on this, but I don't think he is violating any rules."
But Charles Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation in Texas, which is like a conservative American Civil Liberties Union for canon law, said he was "thunderstruck" that Wuerl would not take Cipolla back.
"If the decision had gone the other way, Father Cipolla would have had to live with it," said Wilson, who assisted Cipolla's case. Wuerl's decision not to relent "is an action that strikes at the very heart of the orderly governance of the church."
The ruling also raises serious questions about the Vatican's confidence in the best known U.S. psychiatric hospital that evaluates and treats accused pedophile priests. The court sides with Cipolla's canon lawyer in Rome, who argued that the philosophy underlying St. Luke's Institute in Suitland, Md., was not Christian, and that the facility was unfit to evaluate a priest.
This case began in November 1988, when Wuerl removed Cipolla as chaplain at a Beaver County home for handicapped children after a young man — not a resident of the home — sued Cipolla and the diocese.
Cipolla, 49, has not had a diocesan assignment since. Wuerl later revoked his faculties — forbidding him to dress as a priest or celebrate Mass in public. In a July 1989 letter to the Vatican, quoted in the court case, Wuerl indicated he acted out of concerns over Cipolla's mental health.
"'In short, it would be morally impossible to assign Father Cipolla, who is in need of serious psychological treatment, to the pastoral care of the faithful in the Church," he wrote to the Congregation for Clergy.
Cipolla appealed to the Congregation for Clergy, but in 1991 the congregation sided with Wuerl. Cipolla then appealed to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which ruled in Cipolla's favor.
The ruling was signed by six judges and a secretary, all of whom are bishops, archbishops or cardinals.
The Signatura ruled that Wuerl should not have tried to force Cipolla into a psychiatric hospital. It also ruled that Wuerl had improperly banned Cipolla both from a diocesan assignment and from doing free-lance ministry independent of the diocese, Orsy said.
"The bishop has to accept Father Cipolla as a normal priest in his diocese, to give him a job, allow him to say Mass publicly and to wear clerical attire," said Count Neri Capponi, an expert in canon law at the University of Florence, Italy, who argued Cipolla's case before the Signatura.
Wuerl disagrees, said his spokesman.
"The decision does not indicate that Father Anthony Cipolla should be given an assignment and we will not consider that possibility until the present litigation against him and the diocese has been resolved," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin.
Cipolla still may not wear a Roman collar or say Mass in public, he said.
Although disappointed in the decision, "in our view, nothing has changed. We will be appealing the decision of the Signatura as provided to us by canon law," Lengwin said. "We believe that their decision may have been based on some factual inaccuracies about which we will have a discussion with the Signatura."
Cipolla, who lives at a Catholic shrine in Ohio, did not comment on the ruling, but his local attorney said he was "elated."
"This vindicates him," said John Conte, of Conway, Beaver County.
In light of Wuerl's attitude, "the best thing Father Cipolla could do is to try to change dioceses. That is practical advice, it is not legal advice," said Capponi, Cipolla's canon lawyer.
Conte said his client "definitely has some plans, but we are not at liberty to discuss them."
But Cipolla can't work for another bishop without permission from Wuerl who "would have to share with that bishop any information that we have, such as the present litigation," Lengwin said.
Douglas Yauger, the attorney for Cipolla's accuser in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court case, had tepid praise for Wuerl, who is also named in the lawsuit.
"I think it's a prudent course to decide not to place this guy back into a situation where this could happen again," Yauger said.
Critics are divided
Several prominent Catholics who have accused the U.S. Catholic hierarchy of covering up for priest pedophiles expressed astonishment at this turn of events, but came down on different sides of the case.
The St. Joseph Foundation's Wilson said some bishops err by moving known pedophiles from parish to parish to prey on unsuspecting victims.
"On the other hand, we see cases where an accusation is made with rather meager evidence, and they come down on the priest with both feet. I think that could accurately describe what happened to Father Cipolla," he said.
But Catholic columnist Michael Schwartz said Wuerl set a good example.
"He is behaving in a way that I would like to see more bishops behave," said Schwartz.
Removing a priest facing trial "is the right thing to do, even if this priest is innocent of the charges — and I hope he is. ... Suspension is not a judgment of guilt. A good priest who is falsely accused needs it as protection for himself."
Jason Berry, whose book "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" profiles the child sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic church, agreed.
"It is a remarkable statement on the part of officials in Rome because it indicates how totally cut off they are from the reality of this broadening national scandal," Berry said.
"One of the primary questions that hovers above this whole painful landscape of the American church is, why is Rome silent? Why hasn't the pope spoken out? ... The bishop of Pittsburgh appears to have made a good faith effort to justify what is basically a personnel decision on the grounds of canon law. If the Signatura is coming back and telling him they can't do that, it begs all kinds of questions about the Vatican's attitude toward justice."
Cipolla's work praised
In 15 years of ministry here, Cipolla had eight assignments. But he was best known for his independent work on behalf of the late Padre Pio, a 20th century Italian monk many Catholics believe should be made a saint.
Cipolla has written that during a childhood visit to Padre Pio's monastery, Pio told him, "You will be a priest one day and you will have many crosses in your priesthood ... Your crosses will be unusual, but remember, the cross is a sign of love."
According to Conte, many people who know Cipolla through his Padre Pio work have written to Wuerl on Cipolla's behalf. The court record indicates that the Vatican also received such letters.
Cipolla's advocate in Rome told the Signatura that the diocese had linked Cipolla's many assignment changes to mental health problems that justified removing him from ministry under canon law, according to a brief obtained by the Post-Gazette. Cipolla's advocate countered that the frequent changes resulted from difficult working conditions and from a policy of former Bishop Vincent Leonard for moving young priests.
The Signatura apparently agreed.
"Three times in the document (the judges) come back and say that the work Father Cipolla has been doing ... ought to be praised and has received praise. They say they are pleased by the work he has done in the diocese and then they note that the bishop has been very rigid," Orsy said.
The Signatura does not mention Cipolla's pending civil trial. But the decision does note that the Beaver County District Attorney's office did not file criminal charges against him.
The verdict says, "The state court declared that the trial should not be carried out against Father Cipolla because there was no evidence at all and, beyond that, the young man at that time was more than 18 years old."
But that is not what the accuser contends in his civil lawsuit.
"It flatly didn't happen when he was over 18. He was under 18," said Yauger, the accuser's attorney.
The church court gives no weight to Cipolla's 1978 arrest on charges of molesting a 9-year-old boy, because the child's mother withdrew her complaint a month later, Orsy said.
Wuerl's method faulted
The Signatura said that Wuerl improperly used a canon law dealing with mental illness and that, further, he denied Cipolla due process, Orsy said.
Instead of giving Cipolla a formal warning and dismissal in front of witnesses, Wuerl apparently dealt with Cipolla by mail, Orsy said. "All he has done is legally null and void."
Although the Vatican judges praise Wuerl for trying to safeguard the diocese, "they are incensed that the bishop does not seem to be aware of the legal prescription of how to handle the case."
The Signatura's decision also gives a strict interpretation to the canon concerning a priest "who is inflicted with insanity or some other psychic defect," Orsy said.
According to the court documents, Wuerl apparently used the interpretation given in the Canon Law Society of America's commentary, which says that "psychic defect" can refer to "personality disorders." But the Signatura agreed with Cipolla's advocate that "psychic defect" must mean a severe mental illness, such as psychosis, that would put the priest totally out of touch with reality.
The bulk of the verdict involves a dispute over three Catholic psychiatric facilities.
Court records say Wuerl had Cipolla evaluated at St. Luke's, which advised him to send Cipolla to St. John Vianney, a psychiatric hospital in Downington, Chester County. Cipolla refused to go, but had a second evaluation done at St. Michael's Institute, an outpatient diagnostic center in New York City. St. Michael's said Cipolla did not need hospitalization.
Cipolla's refusal to enter St. John Vianney played a key role in Wuerl's action against him.
"Without the assistance of the qualified professionals on the staff of St. John Vianney Hospital our task will be much more difficult ... and my options regarding the possibility of your future ministry in this diocese will be severely limited. I say that to you now so that you may be prepared to face the possibility that you will not be permitted to exercise priestly ministry," Wuerl told Cipolla in a letter quoted by the Signatura.
Cipolla objected to St. John Vianney because St. Luke's had recommended it. He felt St. Luke's staff derided his faith and that his evaluation was filled with contradictions.
For instance, the Vatican ruling says that while St. Luke's did not find any evidence that Cipolla was a pedophile, it recommended that he not work with children, Orsy said.
Because Cipolla refused his doctor's request to engage in sexual fantasies on the grounds that it would be a sin, St. Luke's labeled him "sexually repressed" and extrapolated other problems from that, Capponi said.
Cipolla's advocate argued that, under canon law, St. Luke's did not qualify as an expert for evaluating a priest's mental condition.
"St. Luke's Institute, a clinic founded by a priest who is openly homosexual and based on a mixed doctrine of Freudian pan-sexualism and behaviorism, is surely not a suitable institution apt to judge rightly about the beliefs and the lifestyle of a Catholic priest," the brief said.
Berry's book documents the homosexuality of the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who founded St. Luke's.
The Signatura seems to uphold the complaints about St. Luke's, Orsy said. "There is an undercurrent in the (decision) that Father Cipolla may have been right in not wanting to go to St. John's because it was recommended by St. Luke (where) the treatment was un-Christian."
"At the same time, the (decision) seemed to have a friendly disposition to St. Michael, saying it went deeper" than St. Luke's, Orsy said.
St. Michael's was founded by Catholic mental health professionals who believe "that psychology is being overused to deal with things that are basically moral problems. Their idea at St. Michael is to use psychology as a useful tool, but also religion as well," said Wilson of the St. Joseph Foundation, who said he had recommended St. Michael's to Cipolla.
The verdict supported St. Michael's opinion that Cipolla showed no signs of "perverse sexuality," psychosis or personality disorder and that he did not need hospitalization or medication.
Despite the ruling, Lengwin said St. Luke's "still enjoys the confidence" of the diocese.
"I think we run a very Catholic program here," said the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, a priest-psychologist on the staff of St. Luke's. "Our staff tend to be very sensitive to people's religious convictions."
Evaluating accused sex offenders requires very frank discussion of sexual acts and fantasies, he said.
"We certainly would not want to use spirituality as a way to avoid the real psychological problems. ... We apply state-of-the-art secular treatment in a Christian context," he said.
Although Berry has criticized some aspects of St. Luke's program, it still represents the best option available to bishops who want a suspected sex offender evaluated or treated, he said.
"The most interesting thing is the Signatura taking the position that the St. Luke's procedures (morally) compromised this guy," Berry said. "If that is symptomatic of how the Vatican sees this problem, then the bishops are in water up to their necks. They will not have the power to remove these guys."
In effect, a precedent
Asked whether this decision was part of a larger trend, Orsy said that this particular section of the Signatura decides so few cases that it is impossible to judge. Technically, there is no such thing as a precedent in canon law.
But "as a matter of course, all other courts will read this decision and all lower courts will put it into practice because they know if they do something opposite, it will be reversed," he said.
"Theoretically it is not a precedent, but in the practical order it is a precedent. So if there is a bishop who has a similar case, he will most certainly read this and know what will happen if a case goes up to Rome."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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