Priest retires after allegations of child sex abuse ruled not proven

By Natasha Lindstrom
March 22, 2017

A Beaver County priest accused two years ago of sexually abusing a child was just as “believable” in proclaiming his innocence as his accuser was in making the allegation, Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said Wednesday.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which houses a body charged by Pope Francis with expediting disciplinary actions in sexual abuse cases — ruled the allegation that the Rev. John “Jack” P. Fitzgerald, 68, abused a child in the late 1990s “has not been proven,” the Pittsburgh diocese said in a statement.

More than 21⁄2 years into the investigation, “it could not be determined with certainty whether the abuse did or did not occur,” the diocese said.

The Vatican issued no opinion on whether Fitzgerald was guilty or innocent.

Zubik told the Tribune-Review the person who reported the alleged sexual crime “was very believable in what he offered as an allegation ... but at the same time, so was Father Fitzgerald in saying that it didn't happen.”

Fitzgerald, whose last assignment was pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Conway, has been on administrative leave and prohibited from administering sacraments or identifying himself as a priest since July 31, 2014. He could not be reached for comment.

Fitzgerald continues to deny committing any acts of sexual abuse, the diocese said.

Zubik said he granted an early-retirement request from Fitzgerald, who once served as chaplain at Pittsburgh International Airport and an Air National Guard station.

“He (volunteered to retire) because of a sensitivity to where we are as a society,” Zubik said.

When alerted to the allegation in 2014 , diocesan officials suspended Fitzgerald's ability to do ministry or dress in priest garments and placed Fitzgerald in a temporary residence.

The diocese issued a news release and reported the accusation to the district attorneys of Allegheny and Lawrence counties, where the alleged abuse reportedly happened.

“I take seriously when any allegation is made, including this one,” Zubik said, “and I also take seriously being fair and transparent with the public.”

Officials urged anyone with more information to come forward. No one else did, Zubik said. The Independent Review Board, a five-member group that advises the bishop on sexual abuse allegations, recommended that Zubik forward the case to the Vatican for further review.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office reviewed the allegation but was “unable to proceed due to evidentiary issues,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

The Lawrence County District Attorney's Office did not return a request for comment.

Zubik said the diocese has mailed letters to parishioners and contacted all priests about Fitzgerald's retirement.

In September, the state Attorney General's Office subpoenaed the Pittsburgh diocese for records dating to 1947 to be used in a grand jury investigation into possible child sexual abuse.

The diocese turned over everything it had, Zubik said, adding that he would cooperate with investigators to help address “the ongoing need to protect children from abuse.”

State investigators made similar inquiries into several dioceses statewide following a grand jury report that accused nearly 50 priests of molesting hundreds of children over decades in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Attorney General's Office spokesman Joe Grace declined to comment.

Anyone with information about abuse can call 911, reach the diocesan assistance coordinator at 1-888-808-1235 or call the Pennsylvania State Abuse Hotline at 1-800-932-0313.



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