Rare Sanction Imposed on Priest
Ties to priesthood severed by Vatican

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
[Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette
November 16, 2002

Anthony Cipolla, the Catholic priest and accused child molester at the heart of a battle between Bishop Donald Wuerl and the Vatican 10 years ago, has been involuntarily laicized by Pope John Paul II, a rare sanction that strips him of all ties to the priesthood.

He was laicized not only because of allegations of sexual abuse, but because he disobeyed orders not to dress as a priest, call himself "Father" or say Mass for anyone but himself.

Cipolla -- who says he is innocent -- was accused of molesting three boys, but never convicted of a crime. In 1988 the diocese banned him from ministry and from identifying himself as a priest, a ban that the Vatican upheld in 1995. But diocesan officials say he continued to conduct ministry from California to Bosnia.

"That's fraudulent. You can't do that," Wuerl said.

In May, Wuerl sent a petition to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking the pope to dismiss Cipolla from the clerical state. He can no longer say private Mass, he is free to marry and the diocese owes him nothing.

The final straw, Wuerl said, came when Cipolla was recognized while trying to say Mass at a church in Rome.

"I have never encountered anything like this," Wuerl said of Cipolla's refusal to obey the orders.

"There is sufficient evidence to indicate that he doesn't seem to understand the seriousness of all of this."

Cipolla, 59, is in Rome to discuss an appeal with a canon lawyer, said Charles Wilson, director of the St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, which helped Cipolla with an appeal years ago. Since 1993 the church has not allowed Cipolla to defend himself, Wilson said.

"I wouldn't presume to question whether or not the Holy Father was right in deciding this ... but if, indeed, Father Cipolla was not given a chance to give his side of the story, I think that's regrettable," he said.

The Vatican decree states that "the penalty is unappealable," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

Cipolla's brother does not believe he molested anyone.

"When he was little, he would play priest. Any money he got for birthdays, he would send to orphanages," said Vincent Cipolla of Aliquippa. "Bishop Wuerl is like a dictator. He has a grudge against my brother."

Tim Bendig, 33, whose 1988 lawsuit led to Cipolla's removal from ministry, was elated. Bendig says Cipolla molested him from age 12 to 17. The diocese settled the case in 1993, over Cipolla's objections.

"This is the best news that any victim could hear -- that the pope himself believes this case history, that he believes this priest is not a good priest. I feel so wonderful that he can no longer hurt anybody in his capacity as a priest," Bendig said.

Cipolla last contacted the Post-Gazette via voice mail Sept. 8. He complained of not being contacted for comment on stories, but left no return number. He referred to his 1978 arrest for molesting a 9-year-old in the rectory of the former St. Francis Xavier Church, North Side.

"I have never, not once, admitted to abusing any child 9 years old, yet you continue to put this in your paper. You have never consulted me once. You always consult Bishop Wuerl or his agents. You stop, or else I will have to take some legal action against you," he said.

Experts on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church said there are probably fewer than 10 cases in which the pope has personally laicized a priest without a church trial. It was approved Sept. 19.

"The next question is, will this stop him from presenting himself as a priest in good standing?" Wuerl asked.

Wuerl said he had no plans to seek laicization of any other priests who have been similarly restricted for as long as 15 years. The others voluntarily resigned from ministry and had obeyed his orders not to present themselves as priests, he said.

"Our efforts here have been to assure our people that there is no one in ministry [who has ever sexually abused a minor]. And our actions have been to see that is true," he said.

Priests who are banned from ministry but not laicized are entitled to some support, but much less than the $1,400 a month Cipolla would have gotten had he remained an active priest in good standing. Vincent Cipolla said his brother had received no money from the diocese for many years.

Cipolla, who was ordained in 1972, was charged in 1978 with molesting a 9-year-old boy who had gone to his rectory for first Communion instructions. A detective's report contains the boy's description of the priest listening to his heart with a stethoscope, taking his temperature, then molesting the boy and giving him a rectal exam -- all under the guise of a medical check-up. The boy said Cipolla told him it would be a sin to tell anyone. The family also believed Cipolla had earlier molested their 13-year-old, though no charges were filed in that case.

According to the report, Cipolla said he gave medical exams to both sons but that they removed their clothes without asking. He said he had lifted the naked 9-year-old onto his bed, but had not molested him or touched his anus. A stethoscope, thermometer and blood pressure gauge were found in his bedroom, the police report said.

Fifteen years later, Cipolla's canon lawyer would tell the Vatican's highest court that there had been no physical exam -- that Cipolla had quizzed the boy strictly on his catechism and the mother mistook his complaints about an "exam" for a physical.

The boys' mother dropped the charges. She told the Post-Gazette that it was due to unbearable pressure from her parish, the late Bishop Vincent Leonard and an attorney who she believes represented the diocese and who the diocese says represented Cipolla alone.

Cipolla remained in ministry until November 1988, eight months after Wuerl became bishop, when Bendig filed suit. He has not had an assignment since. He appealed to the Vatican in 1991. In 1993 the Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to reinstate him. Wuerl refused, and went to Rome with a case file that included the 1978 arrest report. In 1995, in an almost unheard-of reversal, the Vatican court declared that Cipolla was "impeded" from ministry.

The diocese continued to receive reports that Cipolla was acting as a priest. Officials notified those in charge that Cipolla is banned from ministry, Lengwin said. Warning notices were twice sent to every diocese in the United States, he said.

In 1994 Cipolla concelebrated a nationally televised Mass on EWTN, and in 1995 he led a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia. Since 1998, Lengwin said, he was discovered serving as a chaplain on a Catholic cruise, leading pilgrimages to Spain and Venezuela, saying Mass at a parish in St. Louis and giving a retreat in Detroit.

Last year, after a woman became outraged that he was living with her elderly parents in Warren, Ohio, a top official of the Youngstown diocese asked the couple to send him away. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Youngstown was an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh at the time of Cipolla's Vatican appeals.

The Rev. Robert Siffrin, vicar general of the Youngstown diocese, visited the couple. When he asked if they were aware of the allegations against him, "they said that Anthony Cipolla had told them of this, but had convinced them that the charges were all fabricated," Siffrin said.

He assured them that Cipolla would not have been restricted without serious reasons, and learned later that Cipolla had moved out, he said.


Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@ or 412-263-1416.


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