Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, Cleveland native who guided Northeast Ohio Catholics for quarter-century, dies at 88

The Plain Dealer - [Cleveland OH]

September 21, 2021

By David Briggs

Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, a Cleveland native who helped start a national dialogue on the role of the church in the city and guided Northeast Ohio Catholics through more than a quarter century, died Tuesday.

Pilla, who was bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland from 1981 until his retirement in 2006, died at his home, the diocese confirmed in a statement. He was 88.

In a statement, the diocese’s current Bishop Edward C. Malesic remembered Pilla as a “very warm, kind-hearted and deeply faithful shepherd.”

“He was generous with his time and sharing his knowledge and concern for the diocese with me,” Malesic said in his statement. “As a leader in the national Church, Bishop Pilla was an inspiration and example to me throughout my priesthood and in my years as a bishop. I felt so welcomed by him when I came to the Diocese of Cleveland, a Church that he loved so much. As a leader in the community and a friend to so many, he will be greatly missed.”

Funeral services have not been announced.

Archbishop Nelson Perez of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who was Malesic’s predecessor, said Pilla became one of his close friends while he was in Cleveland.

“An incredible source of wisdom and counsel,” Perez said Tuesday of Pilla. “And really a great example of what it means to be a bishop. And the love that the people of Cleveland and the priests of Cleveland had for him was just amazing. Amazing to see.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in a brief social media statement that he and his wife, Fran DeWine, were saddened to learn of Pilla’s death.

“Bishop Pilla was a devoted servant of the Lord who cared deeply for the people of Northeast Ohio,” DeWine wrote.

Pilla’s tenure was filled with the promise of growing lay participation but clouded by a sex-abuse scandal.

One of his first official acts as bishop was to welcome home an area nun slain in El Salvador, and it made a powerful impact on an episcopal ministry that often lifted up the needs of the poor. His Church in the City initiative became a national model for challenging communities to recognize the human costs of suburban sprawl.

Unlike in other major cities such as Detroit, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, Pilla did not order widespread closings of urban parishes as Catholic flocks moved east, west and south. He said active worshiping communities were a vital part of city neighborhoods, and only a dozen city parishes shut down in the first quarter century of Pilla’s tenure.

But in so doing he transferred the burden of keeping parishes open to an ever-decreasing number of priests. In their place, however, were an explosion in lay ministries, from parish administrators to altar girls to extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.

On a national level, Pilla became only the second prelate under the rank of archbishop to rise to the presidency of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was praised as a moderate leader who sought to build consensus among liberal and conservative bishops and to improve relations between the Vatican and the church in the United States.

Locally, he also allowed wide latitude of Catholic expression in the diocese, where Latin Masses were permitted along with programs by activist groups such as FutureChurch, which has its national headquarters in a Cleveland parish.

His greatest trials came in his final years as bishop, when poor health and a clergy sex-abuse scandal sapped much of his energy and damaged his reputation.

During his tenure, the diocese transferred abusive priests to other positions and dioceses, ignored cries for compassion from many victims and turned on Catholics who were abused as children in the courtroom with an aggressiveness that left many victims feeling they had been abused a second time by their church.

As the extent of the scandal became known, Pilla removed several abusive priests from active ministry, and promised that any priest who had committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor would not be returned to parish work.

He also appointed a lay review board, and set up comprehensive reporting procedures and training programs to spot and prevent abuse. In an emotional Holy Thursday ceremony, he washed the feet of a woman molested by a priest as a child.

Some people close to the bishop said Pilla was gripped by a great sadness as he became more aware of the suffering created by the scandal.

In January 2006, shortly before he celebrated his 25th anniversary as the ninth bishop of Cleveland, Pilla announced he had sent a letter to the Vatican offering his resignation before the mandatory retirement age of 75. Pilla retired in May 2006. Pilla did not give reasons for offering his resignation early, but said it would be a good time for the diocese to have a new spiritual leader.

Yet the city’s first native Catholic leader never gave up, spending much of the final years of his ministry trying to implement a Vibrant Parish Life program encouraging churches to share resources and services with one another.

“You don’t worry about what other people think,” he said in an interview. “You’re only worried about what God thinks.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Pilla grew up in Cleveland in the 1940s, a time of racial turmoil as Black residents moved in alongside white families on the East Side.

Pilla remembered race riots while he was attending Patrick Henry Junior High School, and it was his sense of helplessness at the suffering of his Black friends that was influential in his later decision to become a priest.

Look back at Bishop Anthony Pilla's time in Cleveland Anthony Pilla makes his way to a confirmation service for 21 at St. Mary Church in Collinwood on May 10, 2006. The native East Sider praised churches such as St. Mary and the nearby Holy Redeemer for their commitment to their neighborhoods. "This area would be much different if it weren't for these two parishes," he said. Plain Dealer file photo.
Look back at Bishop Anthony Pilla’s time in Cleveland Anthony Pilla makes his way to a confirmation service for 21 at St. Mary Church in Collinwood on May 10, 2006. The native East Sider praised churches such as St. Mary and the nearby Holy Redeemer for their commitment to their neighborhoods. “This area would be much different if it weren’t for these two parishes,” he said. Plain Dealer file photo.

“I remember thinking it shouldn’t be this way,” Pilla said in an interview. “You want to make things better.”

In his freshman year at Cathedral Latin High School, a brother pulled him over after football practice and asked him to consider becoming a cleric. A year later, he decided to go to the seminary.

Pilla was ordained to the priesthood in May 1959 and served a short stint in a parish before becoming a teacher at Borromeo Seminary High School in Wickliffe. He was named rector-president of the high school in 1972, secretary for services to clergy and religious in 1975 and auxiliary bishop in 1979. He was installed as the ninth bishop of Cleveland on Jan. 6, 1981.

Some Cleveland bishops would go on to don cardinal’s robes or become archbishops, but Pilla, a devoted son to his widowed mother and his diocese, always made it clear he was happy to be in Cleveland.

In a 2001 interview on his 20th anniversary as bishop, Pilla put his hand to his heart and smiled: “It’s my town. It’s my city and I love it.”

His first days as bishop were a baptism of fire, as he welcomed home the body of Sr. Dorothy Kazel, one of the members of the Cleveland Diocesan Mission Team found murdered in El Salvador in December 1980. Pilla said the sobering realization of the cost of a life devoted to service to God was one of the defining moments of his time as bishop.

“When you stand up for Gospel values, it costs you,” Pilla said.

In his first year, Pilla issued pastoral letters calling for an end to the nuclear arms race and encouraging Catholics to promote economic justice. The social justice program Pilla is best known for is his Church in the City initiative encouraging urban, suburban and rural residents, officials and businesses to work in partnership with one another.

The initiative contributed to a national dialogue on issues of urban sprawl and the responsibility of suburbs for the common good of the region.

There were some moments of controversy in his early tenure. In 1988, the bishop dismissed all four reporters of the money-losing Catholic Universe Bulletin. Pilla called the firings “a reorganization,” but the Cleveland Newspaper Guild called it “union busting.”

But for most of his time as bishop, the quiet, soft-spoken Pilla allowed great freedom to both conservative and liberal voices in the community, and avoided confrontation in areas from parish closings to priest discipline. When the controversy arose over bishops denying Communion to politicians supporting legalized abortion, Pilla said he would leave it up to the officeholders’ consciences.

Some of the moments Pilla said were his most memorable came at services for people with disabilities or the annual celebration at St. John Cathedral for couples married 50 years or more. “The love is tangible in that cathedral,” Pilla said.

Among his more dramatic moments of his time as bishop was a Mass he said inside the Cuyahoga County Jail in the summer of 2000. “What I’m absolutely certain about is that God loves you,” Pilla told the prisoners in his homily.

“What have been the happiest times of my ministry?” Pilla asked in a 2005 book celebrating his silver anniversary as bishop. “I can answer without hesitation: the times when I have been nearest to the people — when I could bring them the beauty and richness of Christ’s Word and the healing power of his sacraments; when I could share their joys and sorrows; when I could give them assurance that — notwithstanding all our shortcomings and failures — we are important in the Lord’s eyes.”

On the national scene, Pilla would guide the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1995 to 1998, winning praise for a leadership style that listening over arm twisting.

It was also then Pilla would experience serious brushes with his own mortality. Less than a week after presiding at the bishops’ November 1977 meeting, he checked into the hospital for a quadruple bypass operation. The next month, he would learn of a life-threatening staph infection that would sideline him for three months. In the fall of 1999, he underwent prostate surgery.

What he learned in the long loneliness that accompanied his recovery from his earlier health problems, Pilla said, was that even when it seems no one else understands or really cares, “I know God cares.”

In that knowledge he found peace and new perspective on life and ministry.

“Each day is a gift,” Pilla said. “You just do your best.”

But revelations of massive wrongdoing by priests sexually abusing children — and the failure of churches to deal with the problem — swept through the Cleveland Diocese and the nation in 2002.

The Cleveland diocese reported there were allegations against 118 priests since 1950. More poignant were the stories of several victims who said they had been rebuffed or attacked by the church when they came forward.

Pilla would apologize, but the scandal would be the most painful time of his episcopal ministry.

The bishop could take some comfort in his own sermons, which often touched on the theme of God as a merciful parent who offers forgiveness for individuals who are remorseful and repent of sin.

“Jesus most of all,” Pilla said, “was someone who cared about people and was willing to forgive anyone.”

David Briggs is a former religion writer for The Plain Dealer.