Zero tolerance for abuse: Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl’s approach to abuse survivors was, ‘I’m their bishop, and I need to respond to their pain’

By Ann Rodgers
Catholic Standard
November 22, 2016

Then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl helped convince the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests who had sexually abused minors, which meant that they were no longer allowed to serve in ministry as priests.

The grand jury investigating how allegations of child sexual abuse were handled by six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania will review the record of Cardinal Donald Wuerl during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh. Those records will reveal that he was a champion of zero tolerance.

Shortly after becoming bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988, he rejected his attorneys’ advice and met with victims. Seeing the damage to their lives and their faith, he made zero tolerance the policy of the diocese. He stood that ground even when the Vatican’s highest court ordered him to reinstate a priest whom he believed to be guilty. At the meeting of the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 in Dallas, he led the floor fight that established zero tolerance as a national policy of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Upon becoming bishop of Pittsburgh, he found three priests on administrative leave for sexually molesting two brothers. The parents, out of concern to protect others, pressed charges a few months later and filed suit.

Bishop Wuerl wanted to visit the family.

“The almost unanimous advice was to follow the legal advice, which was . . . that, if you had been sued, you shouldn’t go,” said Father Ronald Lengwin, his longtime spokesman in Pittsburgh. But Bishop Wuerl, he continued, “said, ‘You know what? I’m their bishop. I’m their bishop and I need to respond to their pain.’ And he decided he was going, and he went.”

A bishop must respond as a pastor, Cardinal Wuerl explains. “The lawyers could talk to one another, but I wasn’t ordained to oversee a legal structure. As their bishop I was responsible for the Church’s care of that family, and the only way I could do that was to go see them.”

The parents invited him to dinner at their home. Then-Father David Zubik went with him.

“You can’t be part of a meeting like that without realizing the horrific pain and damage that abuse causes,” recalled Bishop Zubik, who succeeded his mentor as shepherd of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “That family was particularly close, not only to each other, but exceptionally close to the Church. To experience the betrayal that they felt from representatives of the Church, from individuals they had trusted their kids with – you can’t describe it.”

Cardinal Wuerl recalled that “the family could not have been more gracious, especially considering what they had experienced. They were such a good witness to the faith for me at that point. I left them convinced I would never reassign a priest who had abused someone. They should never have a chance to do that again.”

Stories of the next day in the office became legend in the Pittsburgh chancery.

“It changed him. It just changed him in many ways in terms of how his response was going to be,” Father Lengwin said. “We were going to be much more pastoral.”

Bishop Wuerl held a mandatory meeting to inform all priests that sexual contact with a minor was not simply a sin that could be forgiven, but a crime that would result in permanent removal from ministry and possibly prison.

The most vivid memory of Father Lawrence DiNardo, his chief canonical adviser who is now general secretary of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, was “that the silence of the priests cannot be tolerated,” he said. “Bishop Wuerl’s point of view was that you need to understand that it’s not in the interest of the Church or the interest of the priesthood to be silent. If you know something, you need to tell us.”

The diocese settled the lawsuit. None of the priests returned to ministry. Two went to prison. The third, against whom charges were dropped due to a technicality, was forced to retire and forbidden to say Mass for anyone other than nuns in the convent where he was assigned to live.

In 1989 Bishop Wuerl created the Diocesan Review Board, a panel of professional experts on child sexual abuse that eventually also included the parent of a victim. He made decisions in abuse cases only after hearing their evaluation and recommendation.

Fred Thieman, an Episcopalian and former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, chaired many review-board meetings. The board had “extreme independence,” he said. “We were given the freedom to reach whatever decisions we wanted to reach, based on the best evidence.”

Bishops had no guidelines in 1988. And there was little support from Rome for removing abusive priests, according to an analysis that Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law, presented in his book, Before Dallas. The 1983 Code of Canon Law had been drafted to give priests rights that would protect them from the arbitrary decisions of bishops. But little attention had been given to protecting the faithful from dangerous clergy. The Church’s statute of limitations was very short, and there was a “catch 22” involving mental illness. Bishops argued that perpetrators should be removed due to mental illness, but canon law forbade penalizing a priest for mental illness, and removal from ministry was a severe penalty.

Bishop Wuerl was aware that he faced resistance in Rome. His 1993 written policy on clergy sexual misconduct prescribed permanent removal from ministry for sexual abuse of a minor. But, knowing that Rome might overrule him, he created a possibility that a priest who had been treated and approved for ministry by psychiatrists, and who lived under close supervision, could serve in a setting that involved no contact with children. It was used briefly in one case, but the priest was removed after more allegations came in.

Bishop Wuerl was simultaneously working through the national bishops’ conference to urge Rome to change Church law so that abusive priests could be removed swiftly and permanently.  Such changes would be a long time coming.

“When decisions had to be made, we were breaking new ground,” Father DiNardo said. “How do you restrict a person’s faculties when you don’t have the penalties canonically? Everything related to…the sexual abuse scandal has to be contextualized in the time and place they occurred. From hindsight, there are things we do that are easier now because of the changes in the rules. But at the time it happened it wasn’t so easy.”

One reason Bishop Wuerl worked so hard on the issue was the case of Father Anthony Cipolla, which defined his response to abuse and eventually began to change the way Rome responded.

In November 1988 Tim Bendig, a 19-year-old former seminarian, filed a suit saying that Father Cipolla had molested him from the age of 12. In remarks he would later repent of, Bishop Wuerl challenged Bendig’s version of events. It was the only time he publicly questioned an accuser’s story.

The bishop eventually deemed the case highly credible.

He learned through that experience “to be much more open to listening to a victim, even if all the circumstances don’t add up immediately,” he said. “We learned that, when an allegation comes in, you turn it over to the public authorities. Because they are the ones who can investigate whether a crime has taken place. We can’t.”

Cipolla, who died in September 2016, never was tried or convicted, and maintained his innocence.

Despite the bishop’s initial skepticism, he immediately sent Father Cipolla for evaluation. He was never returned to ministry.

Bendig’s attorney had unearthed a detailed detective’s report from 1978, when Father Cipolla was charged with molesting a 9-year-old boy. The priest had admitted having the naked child on the bed in his rectory, but claimed to have been giving him a medical exam. A decade later in his appeals to the Vatican, Cipolla would instead claim that the mother was confused, and that the “exam” was a catechism quiz.

The mother’s sworn deposition stated that she dropped the charges under pressure from her pastor, Bishop Vincent Leonard, and Cipolla’s attorney.

In March 1993, the Vatican’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, ordered Bishop Wuerl to return Father Cipolla to ministry. Instead, the bishop took the almost unheard-of step of petitioning the court to take the case back.

The verdict discounted Father Cipolla’s 1978 arrest because the boy’s mother withdrew the complaint. It said that Bishop Wuerl should not have used the canon on mental illness to remove Father Cipolla because it was only for severe psychosis.

Bishop Wuerl was ordered to accept Father Cipolla as a priest in good standing, give him an assignment, allow him to say Mass publicly and to wear clerical garb.

That order “scared and paralyzed the other bishops,” said Nicholas Cafardi. Bishop Wuerl was “to the best of my knowledge, the only one who actually appealed a [Vatican] decision returning an allegedly abusive priest to ministry. He does stand out. He took on the Roman canonical system and said they had got it wrong. That took a lot of courage.”

The conflict was between a pastoral approach and a purely canonical one, Cardinal Wuerl said. “When we realized how flawed the decree was, you have to respond. It wasn’t as if we were all standing around and said, ‘Let’s take on the Holy See.’ One thing led to another and then to another. As it turned out, we were right.”

The Vatican court had lacked key facts – including the pending civil trial – because under Vatican rules at the time, the diocese wasn’t represented at the hearing. Instead, the case against the priest was handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy. That procedure changed as a result of Bishop Wuerl’s efforts.

In October 1995, the Signatura reversed itself and ruled that Bishop Wuerl had been right to remove Cipolla from ministry. That would make it far easier for other bishops to do the same because it changed the standard for removing a priest due to mental illness.

The second ruling, given after the Signatura sought an authoritative definition of the canonical term “psychic defect” from the Vatican office that interprets the Code of Canon law, said it meant any mental condition that could harm the faithful.

Close observers believe that Bishop Wuerl stepped on powerful toes when he sent the case back to the Signatura, blocking his advancement for the remainder of that pontificate.

“I think he knew it was going to hurt him,” said Sister Margaret Hannan, his longtime chancellor. “He was so politically astute that he knew sometimes that his decisions were political suicide, but he had such a vision and such a strong faith and such spiritual depth that he would go forward because of his love for the people and for the Church. He was willing to take personal hits.”

Although other dioceses weren’t fighting pitched battles with the Vatican over the right to remove child molesters, Bishop Wuerl believed the other bishops understood the problem and were trying to do the right thing. In early 2002 he was working on revisions to the diocesan policy that would end promises of confidentiality to victims and require all allegations be given to the civil authorities. That was when news broke about a sex-abuse case that had been covered up in the Archdiocese of Boston, followed by similar reports from many other dioceses.

“I just assumed that everybody was doing what we would do. When the Boston situation erupted, it was a shock,” he said.

Too many bishops, he said, had relied on psychiatrists and lawyers, rather than on their own pastoral judgment. “A scientist’s decision or a doctor’s decision or a technician’s decision is a very valuable piece of information. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. You wouldn’t be a bishop if all you needed was a treatment-center professional to tell you how to deal with clergy,” he said at the time.

Shortly before the summer meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, draft rules for responding to allegations were circulated to the bishops. The proposed norms included a set of conditions under which a priest with one past offense could return to ministry, including parish ministry.

Bishop Wuerl announced that he would oppose any policy that returned an offender to ministry, especially parish ministry. “If you are going to make a mistake, make it on the side of the young people. Err in defense of the flock, not the shepherd,” he said.

The exception for a single instance was unreasonable because no one knew if other victims had remained silent, he said. “Who is doing the counting?” he asked.

At the Dallas meeting, Bishop Wuerl broke with his usual practice of working behind the scenes. Instead he led a floor fight that resulted in a zero-tolerance policy. Against strong opposition he also won approval to define sexual abuse more broadly than did the civil law, so that priests could be removed for behavior with a minor that was immoral but not necessarily illegal.

He had a critical role in a floor fight over reporting, arguing that bishops must, at a minimum, immediately tell civil authorities about any allegation in which the alleged victim was still a minor. Some bishops only wanted to report allegations that they had first investigated and found credible. Bishop Wuerl convinced the majority that the bishops can judge only fitness for ministry, while civil authorities must determine whether a crime was committed. “I believe where we have erred in the past is appropriating to ourselves the decision of whether or not to report the allegation because we have decided it is not credible,” he said.

Within a year, the charter seemed to be influencing Rome more than Rome had influenced the charter. The Vatican issued new rules that allowed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to laicize a priest against his will and without a Church trial if the evidence was clear and the wrongdoing was egregious. Furthermore, the judgment could not be appealed to the Vatican’s court system.

Pope Francis has taken steps to address child sexual abuse that Cardinal Wuerl has advocated since the Dallas Charter of 2002.

Cardinal Wuerl has led by example, said Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, who formerly served as the general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and previously was the canon lawyer who advised them on implementation of the child-protection charter and norms. “He really understood, as a shepherd, what this meant for children, for the faithful, for the Church. In Pittsburgh he fought very strongly to institute strong measure of protection and to address the injustices and the priests who had offended. He didn’t just announce something, he did it.”


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