Wuerl Tackled Priest Sex-Abuse Crisis, Church Closings

By Bill Zlatos
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
October 21, 2010

Whether weeding out priests who are sexual predators or closing century-old parishes, then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl did not shy away from controversy.

"He never backed down from a problem, no matter how embarrassing it might be or how serious it might be," said the Rev. Joseph McCafferty, pastor of Saints John and Paul Parish in Marshall and former secretary to Wuerl. "He was willing to deal with it and deal with it swiftly, and with great care for doing what is right."

Pope Benedict XVI has named Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, one of 24 new cardinals.

Foremost among thorny issues Wuerl faced here was the sex abuse scandal in the clergy and the closing of financially unstable but popular parishes.

"He certainly was a leader in the church's response to the sex-abuse crisis," said Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University. He cited Wuerl's understanding of the harm done to victims and the need not to return sexually abusive priests to the ministry.

Cafardi and Wuerl met when Cafardi was 18 and a seminarian at St. Paul's in Crafton, and crossed paths again when he was a student in Rome. They became friends. Cafardi decided on a career as an attorney, and Wuerl made him his personal lawyer while here.

The zero-tolerance policy Wuerl developed in Pittsburgh became the standard American bishops adopted at their 2002 conference in Dallas.

Cafardi dedicated his book on the subject, "Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops' Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children," to Wuerl.

"He did the right thing right the first time," Cafardi wrote in his dedication.

McCafferty said Wuerl stood tall during that time. Wuerl challenged the decision of the highest court in the Vatican to reinstate a priest Wuerl wanted to remove because of sexual abuse. The court's decision was overturned.

"That is something many in his position would have let go," McCafferty said.

Not all observers, however, praised Wuerl's handling of the sex abuse scandal. In a statement, David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called Wuerl "one of the most PR-savvy bishops in the world."

"But," Clohessy added, "he has essentially been just as determined, and even more successful, than his peers in keeping child sex cases quiet."

Cafardi and McCafferty, though, gave Wuerl high marks for his process of closing or merging parishes. Fewer than 50 closed and 50 merged while Wuerl was bishop, a diocesan spokesman said. In cities such as Boston, for example, some parishioners became squatters in closed churches.

"Pittsburgh didn't go through that trauma because of the way Wuerl handled the process," Cafardi said. "He got the parishes involved very early on."

McCafferty recalled Wuerl going to a church for confirmation where parishioners were protesting the parish closing.

"He went right there and faced those who were displeased and showed great leadership in doing so," McCafferty said.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.