Pittsburgh colleagues stunned by Wuerl's turn of fate

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 28, 2018

Cardinal Donald Wuerl's name is painted over on the sign for North Catholic High School, Monday, August 27, 2018, at North Catholic High School in Cranberry.
Photo by Jessie Wardarski

After proceeding to the front of the church, Bishop David Zubik lies on the floor in silence, with the Rev. Kris Stubna kneeling behind, as they begin the "Holy Hour for Repentance" special service, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. Those in attendance were asked to fast and pray for the purification of the Church, inaugurating a year of repentance within the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Photo by Jessie Wardarski

More than two decades ago, Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl made a fateful trip to Rome where he challenged the highest court in the Catholic Church over its poorly informed order to lift a suspension on a sexually abusive priest. The trip helped seal his reputation as an early, bold proponent of zero-tolerance toward sexual abusers.

With that reputation now under siege, now-Cardinal Wuerl is making an equally momentous trip to Rome. A photo from the Vatican showed Cardinal Wuerl with the pope on Friday. Cardinal Wuerl previously said he would go to Rome to ask Pope Francis to immediately accept his resignation as archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Cardinal Wuerl says he is stepping down for the good of the church after a Pennsylvania grand jury assailed his record. It cited cases in which known abusers stayed in ministry under his watch and accused the cardinal of presiding over administrative actions that “showed no concern for public safety or the victims of child sexual abuse.”

Now those who worked with Cardinal Wuerl in Pittsburgh when he was bishop here from 1988 to 2006 are processing the shock of the imminent halt to his clerical career.

Until recently, few suspected such a result.

Cardinal Wuerl has remained on the job three years after turning 75, the age when he offered his resignation as required by church law. He has been a top U.S. ally of the pope and highly influential in Vatican circles. Few suspected that Cardinal Wuerl, for whom a local high school was named in honor of his efforts on behalf of Catholic education, would have that name stripped from the school in response to public outcry over his record.

“It’s very painful for me to know this man the way I do and the wonderful things he has done and see the end of his service to the church be marred like this,” said Sister Margaret Hannan, who served as chancellor of the diocese during Wuerl’s tenure here.

The Archdiocese of Washington hasn’t publicized Cardinal Wuerl’s whereabouts, but he had been scheduled to celebrate Mass at a church in Rome on Sept. 23 before canceling. He is also skipping a scheduled “Red Mass” this Sunday for Catholics in the legal community in Washington, where he typically presided in past years.

Cardinal Wuerl grew up in Mount Washington and became the most influential Catholic cleric of his lifetime to be born, raised and ordained in Pittsburgh. He was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 before becoming archbishop of Washington and later being named a cardinal.

His impact here has been vast.

He’s credited, and blamed, for a massive parish restructuring that led to the closure of scores of churches, many of them historic and ethnic congregations with deep emotional ties to their members.

He promoted scholarship funds for needy students even while closing some schools with dwindling enrollment.

He helped cultivate a generation of priest-administrators in Pittsburgh, several of them now bishops of their own dioceses.

And then there was his response sexually abusive priests.

In the early 1990s, the Vatican ordered him to reinstate an abusive priest, Anthony Cipolla, who had appealed his suspension in a process that had not allowed the diocese to present its case. Then-Bishop Wuerl refused, instead traveling to Rome to make an unheard-of appeal to get the court to reverse itself. It finally did three years later based on a fuller account of the case against Cipolla, who had molested at least three boys.

Early on, Bishop Wuerl chose to meet with a family of victims in 1988, even as they had a pending lawsuit against the church over the predations of a ring of pedophile priests. In an official response to the grand jury, Cardinal Wuerl said he was so moved by that meeting that he quickly declared that “no priest who had abused a minor could expect to return to ministry.”

But the grand jury concluded he didn’t always live up to his self-proclaimed standard, which came years before U.S. bishops adopted a nationwide zero-tolerance policy in the crisis year of 2002.

The grand jury cited cases in which abusive priests did stay in ministry under Bishop Wuerl’s watch in his early years, and it noted he presided over legal settlements that required victims not to speak publicly about their abuse. In the case of a priest named Ernest Paone, for example, it said Cardinal Wuerl allowed him to do ministry in other states even as evidence steadily piled up over his past offenses in Pittsburgh.

In the aftermath of the grand jury report, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry reverted to its historic name, North Catholic High School. That followed a petition for the name change, one that Cardinal Wuerl himself ultimately assented to.

Those who worked with Cardinal Wuerl during his Pittsburgh years say he did the best he could in a setting in the early 1990s when Vatican rules made it very difficult to remove a priest who didn’t admit to abuse allegations, and when some of the claims against priests came from third-hand sources or were otherwise hard to substantiate.

“I can't tell you how much I worked with him and how passionate he was on this issue and not taking any nonsense” regarding abusive priests, said Sister Hannan, the Pittsburgh local leader of the Sisters of Mercy.

Bishop David Zubik, who served as an administrator under his predecessor, noted that many of Bishop Wuerl’s policies served as a model for the 2002 charter approved by bishops, calling for abusers to be removed from ministry and reported to law enforcement.

“I just hope, as people take a look at whatever decision Pope Francis is going to make, people don’t lose sight of the passion he did have in terms of addressing the issue of sexual abuse,” Bishop Zubik said. 

The Rev. Frank Almade, who has been a priest for 40 years in the diocese, recalls a clergy meeting early in Bishop Wuerl’s tenure in which made absolutely clear there would be no tolerance for priests violating children.

“Did Bishop Wuerl do some things that today we would not have done? Yes,” Father Almade said. But “at the time he was ahead of the curve, leading the way to where other bishops did not want to go.”

The most dramatic impact Cardinal Wuerl had on the literal landscape of the Pittsburgh diocese was in a massive parish consolidation in the early 1990s. Faced with a sharp decline in parishioners and other factors following the steel bust, the diocese dissolved 163 of 333 parishes, replacing them with 56 merged parishes. Many churches were closed.

It didn’t go down well with parishioners who fought and still remember those changes.

“Well, in a nutshell, he’s arrogant and feels he’s above everyone else,” said Gene Selko, who was a parishioner at St. Matthew in South Side Flats, which was merged into another parish. “You could never get in to see him. He ignored the people.”

Mr. Selko said to this day, he remains a “roamin’ Catholic” who doesn’t belong to any parish.

But Bishop Wuerl’s successor says he responded out of necessity.

“He had a vision to say we weren’t going to wait until we came to the point of crisis,” Bishop Zubik said. “He saw difficulties and tried to address them as best he could.”

Cardinal Wuerl was also a pioneer in interfaith relations, said Pittsburgh Rabbi Alvin Berkun. The Second Vatican Council, which then-seminarian Wuerl attended during studies in Rome, issued a landmark document seeking to repair Catholic relations with Jews.

Rabbi Berkun, now rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation, said then-Bishop Wuerl enthusiastically embraced a program that is still active in Pittsburgh Catholic high schools in which rabbis visit to teach about the Jewish origins of Christianity and the history of anti-Semitism.

The two also bonded personally.

“I went to Rome for his red hat [installation as cardinal], he came to my daughter’s wedding, spoke at my congregation,” Rabbi Berkun said.

“I'm heartbroken about what’s happened” with Cardinal Wuerl recently, he added. “For many, many years I held him in awe over the fact that he went to Rome” to challenge the Cipolla ruling.

Sister Hannan echoed the thought but believes he’s resigning “because it’s what’s best for the church.”



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