Wuerl Is Known for Hard Line against Priests Who Are Accused of Sexual Abuse
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
June 15, 2003
Catholic Bishop Donald W. Wuerl's wake-up call to the problem of child sexual abuse by clergy came a few years before he became head of the Pittsburgh diocese.
He remembers reading about a Louisiana bishop who had knowingly transferred a serial child rapist from parish to parish to parish.
"When you read something like that, you say, 'Isn't that terrible? But that's not happening here,' " Wuerl recalled.
But shortly after becoming bishop of Pittsburgh in February 1988, he learned that it had happened here. Several months earlier, three priests had been banned from public ministry because of allegations that they had all molested the same two altar boys.
And a fourth priest, the former principal of two diocesan high schools, had been given an administrative job in the diocesan education office because of a 1986 allegation that he had molested a student at Quigley High School in Baden.
That reckoning set the course for his evolution into a bishop who now has a national reputation for zero tolerance of priests who molest minors.
That stature has put him at the center of speculation that he is a prime candidate to replace Cardinal Bernard Law, whose failure to remove known child molesters from priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston exploded into a scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.
"If you're looking for a bishop who is going to oust these priests, he is the man for you," said Tim Bendig, 34, whose 1988 civil lawsuit led to Wuerl's fight in the Vatican for the right to remove predators.
Meeting the victims
The three priests who'd been banned from public ministry just as Wuerl became bishop were the Revs. Robert Wolk, Richard Zula and Francis Pucci. The former high school principal still serving as a diocesan administrator was the Rev. John Hoehl.
In July 1988, after a psychiatric treatment center in Toronto said Hoehl was fit to begin at least limited ministry, Wuerl made him chaplain at Shadyside Hospital, according to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.
Then, two months later, Wuerl met his first victims.
The parents of the boys in the Wolk case, who earlier had not wanted to go public, decided to tell the police and sue the diocese.
"They really just wanted to make sure that this was never going to happen again to anyone else," said the Rev. John Arnott, who was then their pastor at a small parish in Washington County. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their permission.
Arnott had not known of the abuse by the two other pastors. Now the family told him of their planned action. Arnott knew them to be Catholics of great faith. Unsure of what Wuerl knew, Arnott called him.
Wuerl asked Arnott to try to arrange a meeting with the family. They invited Wuerl to dinner. Wuerl attended against the advice of his attorneys and advisers, according to Lengwin and others who worked in the chancery at the time.
He would later speak of his outrage at the spiritual damage the priests had wrought on the family. That dinner set the tone for future cases, said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer then on the bishop's staff and now on the U.S. bishops' national lay review board on child sexual abuse.
Wuerl told his staff that his first concern was for the injured party and his second for that person's family.
"Only third would we worry about the potential harm to the church and its reputation. Not every bishop took that position," Cafardi said.
Wolk and Zula went to prison; Wolk was voluntarily laicized and Zula remains banned from ministry. Pucci's charges were dropped due to the statute of limitations. He was forced to retire. Until his death last year, he was allowed to say Mass only for the nuns in the convent where he stayed, Lengwin said.
The diocese settled the Wolk suit out of court.
It is one of three such settlements that Lengwin says the diocese has made during Wuerl's tenure. All three -- those of Anthony Cipolla and Richard Dorsch were the others -- were legally actionable under the statute of limitations, Lengwin said.
The claim appears borne out by complaints to the Post-Gazette from others who went to the diocese decades after childhood abuse. Although Wuerl ousted the priest, they said, the diocese offered only financial compensation for counseling and related expenses such as parking and baby-sitting.
One man is currently known to be suing the diocese over childhood sexual abuse, and his suit was filed 12 years after Wuerl ousted the priest named in the case on the basis of someone else's complaint.
Ahead of the curve
The Wolk case made headlines in mid-October 1988, and by month's end, suits were filed against two more priests. One against the Rev. James Somma, then at Nativity Church in South Park, came from a woman who had been a childhood friend of Somma's adopted daughter 25 years earlier. It was judged "not credible" by the diocese and later dismissed by the court due to the statute of limitations. Somma, who died last year, remained in ministry.
The second suit marked the last time Wuerl publicly questioned the credibility of an accuser. When Tim Bendig, then 19, alleged that Cipolla had molested him from the time he was 12 until he turned 18, Wuerl responded that Bendig had made unfounded allegations during his brief tenure as a seminarian in 1987.
Nonetheless, Wuerl sent Cipolla for psychiatric evaluation. According to documents that later emerged from Wuerl's battle to ban Cipolla from ministry, the psychiatrists recommended long-term hospitalization. When Cipolla refused Wuerl's order to undergo such treatment, Wuerl banned him from all public ministry. Bendig's attorney would later present Wuerl with documents detailing Cipolla's 1978 arrest for molesting a 9-year-old boy.
But Cipolla, who maintains his innocence, appealed to the Vatican. When the first court ruled in Wuerl's favor, Cipolla appealed to the Vatican's highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.
In November 1988, not long after the Cipolla and Somma suits were filed, Wuerl removed Hoehl from the hospital chaplaincy post he'd just appointed him to and banned him from presenting himself as a priest. Hoehl then resigned from priesthood.
The decision to oust Hoehl was another step on the path to zero tolerance, 14 years before it became national policy, Lengwin said.
"Our whole thinking has evolved over the years and was maybe a little bit ahead of the church," he said.
But the church did not announce why Hoehl was gone, and no court case brought it to media attention. Around 1992, there would be two cases that the Post-Gazette later learned about, in which a priest was quietly but permanently removed from ministry after allegations of sexual abuse of minors. The Post-Gazette is not identifying them because there were no criminal or civil charges.
A battle with the Vatican
In 1993, two other cases collided, testing Wuerl's resolve.
In February 1992, two families from two parishes complained within two days about the Rev. Edward Huff. One said he had rubbed a boy's leg while he drove the child to a pizza shop, Lengwin said. The other was worse, Lengwin said, but he declined to describe it.
"It was enough to remove him [from his parish] that same day," Lengwin said.
Huff spent 10 months in a psychiatric facility for priests, which gave him an optimistic prognosis, Lengwin said. But just as Huff was released, Wuerl heard informally that Cipolla's appeal for reinstatement had gone well, Lengwin said. The accusations in the suit pending against Cipolla were worse than those against Huff. If the Signatura were to order Cipolla back to ministry, what chance would Wuerl have of ousting Huff?
"There is no question that the Vatican decision was influencing our thinking," Lengwin said.
On Nov. 2, 1992, Wuerl made Huff a hospital chaplain and assigned him to the same rectory as Lengwin, who was expected to monitor him, Lengwin said. That lasted two months. Then several families from yet another of Huff's former parishes, in Bessemer, Lawrence County, told the diocese that Huff had molested their young teenage sons. Huff was sent back to the psychiatric facility and resigned from the priesthood seven weeks later.
According to the police, the diocese took those complaints to the district attorney. Huff pleaded guilty to indecent assault and corruption of minors and was sentenced to up to five years in jail.
Wuerl never put another offender in nonparish ministry, despite the continued advice of psychiatric experts, Lengwin said.
"I don't know if I would characterize it as being burned [by that experience], but we determined it was not something that we wanted to do again," Lengwin said.
On March 8, 1993, three weeks after Huff resigned from ministry, Wuerl gave his priests the newly published diocesan policy on sexual misconduct. Because the Vatican could order an offender returned to ministry, it spelled out strict criteria for such a case. The priest would have to be repentant, involved in ongoing therapy, work in a place where everyone knew his history and where he could be monitored at all times. Wuerl said he never used that option.
The day after the policy was handed out, the Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to reinstate Cipolla. Wuerl then filed an almost unheard-of appeal. Two-and-a-half years later, he won that appeal, which led to revisions in the way the Vatican courts handle such cases.
But it may have caused Wuerl political damage in Rome. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, head of the Vatican court that ordered Cipolla reinstated, has a vote in the Vatican congregation that makes and moves bishops.
"It's unprecedented that a bishop would fight so hard, not for just one victim, but for all victims," said Bendig, Cipolla's accuser. "He risked his reputation to have [Cipolla] removed."
The last arrest of a Pittsburgh priest for molesting a minor occurred Aug. 26, 1994. The Rev. Richard Dorsch, a much-admired pastor who served on the diocesan priest council, was charged with molesting a 13-year-old boy during a sports outing at North Park. Wuerl immediately banned Dorsch from any pretense of ministry
According to Lengwin, Wuerl contacted the victim's family and the diocese reached a financial settlement. Dorsch was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to up to 23 months in jail. He resigned from the priesthood in April 1996.
They boy's father no longer wants to talk about it. "I just want it to go away," he said.
In the one suit that is still pending, Paul J. Dorsch, no relation to Richard Dorsch, sued Hoehl and the diocese in 2001. Hoehl had been forced out of the priesthood 12 years earlier, but Dorsch said his own life had been a living hell since 1976. During high school at Quigley, Dorsch said, he was among other boys who received special privileges in exchange for allowing Hoehl to molest them. Dorsch blames the abuse for serious medical problems, his divorce and his loss of faith.
Although Hoehl had been gone since 1988, the diocese had heard from a second accuser in 1993 and a fourth came forward after Dorsch in 2002.
"Do we believe the allegations are credible? Yes," Lengwin said.
Paul Dorsch formally contacted the diocese in 1997 because he wanted a public warning that Hoehl was a child molester.
"I wasn't asking for money. I was looking for an educational way to resolve the issue of accountability, so that he couldn't do this to other kids. I wanted for all of those priests who were removed from the diocese to be exposed," Dorsch said.
He did not get what he wanted.
"They said he was no longer their employee and that they had no responsibility for him and can't do anything," Dorsch said.
Lengwin said that even if it were possible to keep track of former priests, the diocese can determine only whether someone was suitable for ministry. It requires a court to declare that someone has committed a crime, he said.
Attorneys for the diocese argue that church officials acted responsibly. Most of the legal wrangling concerns whether the abuse aggravated Dorsch's debilitating Crohn's disease and whether he made the connection between the abuse and the disease recently enough avoid the statute of limitations. Because no attorney would take Dorsch's case on contingency, his legal fees now top $30,000.
Dorsch believes the diocese has a moral obligation to settle.
"I think they are hiding behind the statute of limitations for monetary reasons," he said.
An unknown number of ousters occurred last year as the Boston and other scandals unfolded.
In March 2002, Wuerl announced that, after reviewing old personnel files, he had removed "several" priests. The diocese had changed its policy on what to do if a case boiled down to the word of a credible accuser against that of a credible priest with a clean record. Previously such priests stayed in some kind of ministry.
Wuerl now says he would choose to err on the side of accusers.
But because he did not know if these priests were innocent or guilty, he would not release their names. A comparison of diocesan directories and other evidence suggests that "several" meant about a half-dozen.
The Post-Gazette is aware of at least two other cases last year in which accusers came forward with allegations for the first time and priests were permanently removed from ministry. Perhaps the only thing that Paul Dorsch and Bendig agree on about Wuerl is that he should release the names of all priests removed due to accusations of child sexual abuse.
The last known major act in Wuerl's response to sexual abuse cases came last fall, when at Wuerl's insistence, Pope John Paul II forcibly laicized Cipolla.
"Our bottom line is that we can assure people that there is no priest in ministry who has abused a child," Lengwin said.
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