Six More Lawsuits Filed against Pittsburgh Diocese

By Michael Hasch
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]
July 1, 2004

Six more lawsuits were filed Wednesday by individuals who claim to have been sexually abused decades ago by priests in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The latest lawsuits allege abuse by five former priests in the diocese, including three -- John Hoehl, who withdrew from the priesthood in 1988, Lawrence O'Connell and Andrew J. Suran -- who have been named in previous suits by other alleged victims.

Others named yesterday were George Wilt, who retired in 1993 as pastor at St. Bernard's in Mt. Lebanon, and Edward Smith, who served at Sacred Heart Church in Emsworth.

O'Connell, Suran and Smith are deceased.

The lawsuits, filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, name the diocese, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua as defendants. All are accused of being involved in a conspiracy to protect priests who molested minors. Bevilacqua was Wuerl's predecessor.

None of the surviving priests are named in the suits because the statute of limitations has expired.

"...The attorneys once again fail to provide evidence that leadership in the diocese failed to respond once a case of abuse became known. The diocese strongly denies this accusation," said the Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

Lengwin said that many of the accusations surfaced long after some of the priests died. In other cases, he said, priests were removed from assignments, placed on leaves of absence and eventually withdrew from the ministry.

Smith, according to Lengwin, was not a priest in the diocese but a member of the Spiritan community.

"There are no priests, to the knowledge of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, engaged in the ministry today, against whom there is an allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor."

The latest lawsuits were filed by:

Christopher A. DeBlassio, 43, of Aliquippa, Beaver County, who said he was a 14-year-old altar boy when he began a four-year sexual relationship with Hoehl, who was head of Quigley High School in Baden.

Bobette Carol Woodling Tusa, 65, of Cranberry, Butler County, who said she was 16 when Smith fondled her when she went to him for counseling.

A woman who said she was 13 when she was fondled in 1961 by Wilt at St. Bernard's when she went to him for counseling.

A woman who said she was 6 when was fondled by Suran at St. Michael's Church in Braddock. The abuse lasted for about a year until she said she developed a vaginal infection from the abuse.

Judith M. Reiland Upperman, 55, and an unidentified woman who each said O'Connell often fondled them as they arrived for class at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin school in Whitehall. Upperman was 7 when the abuse began; the other woman 14.

Michael Hasch can be reached at or (412) 320-7820.