Diocese erred on when priest was removed from ministry

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 06, 2018

In its original response to an Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh erroneously said it withdrew an abusive priest’s authorization to do ministry at least six years before it actually did so. 

The diocese has acknowledged the error and it says it’s correcting the record. 

The diocese originally claimed that on Jan. 30, 1996, it sent a letter informing the Diocese of San Diego, where the Rev. Ernest Paone would be doing ministry, that he “did not possess the faculties of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.” Faculties are a priest’s authorization from his home diocese to do ministry there or elsewhere.

But the letter actually said, “Father Ernest Paone does possess the faculties of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.” 

The diocese revised not just the date but its entire characterization of the case. It originally said it “acted repeatedly to keep Paone from active ministry wherever he was located” beginning in 1994, when it was alerted to allegations against him.

Now, the website of the diocesan newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic, acknowledges Paone retained faculties to do ministry until 2002 — a “decision that would not be made today” but that reflected “the difficulties of trying to remove a priest from ministry against his will in an era before Church law had provisions to help bishops do so.”

The grand jury accused more than 90 Pittsburgh priests of abuse over seven decades.

It highlighted the Paone case as an example of “institutional failure” that undercut Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s claim to have taken a zero-tolerance approach to abuse while bishop of Pittsburgh.

The Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, said the mistake was the result of human error. The diocese sent an amended response to the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro and will file a court petition to correct the official record, he said.

Cardinal Wuerl led the Pittsburgh diocese from 1988 until 2006, when he became archbishop of Washington, D.C. Amid criticism following the grand jury report, he has asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation immediately. 

Father Paone was ordained in 1957 and left Pennsylvania in 1966 after being accused of sexual abuse. He spent the ensuing decades ministering either full- or part-time in California and, briefly, in Nevada, all with permission from the Pittsburgh diocese. He also taught at a public school in California. He died in 2012.

There are no known allegations he abused anyone in his years in the West.

Cardinal Wuerl, in his official response to the grand jury, said he served notice to Pittsburgh priests in 1988 that “sexual contact with a minor ... would result in permanent removal from ministry and possible imprisonment.” 

The Diocese of Pittsburgh said by the 1990s, Father Paone’s personnel records were misfiled, and then-Bishop Wuerl was unaware of allegations in those files when he renewed Father Paone’s permission in 1991 to minister out West.

Diocesan officials reviewed those files in August 1994, after a parish meeting in which a woman accused Father Paone of abusing her brother decades earlier in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The records showed that in the early 1960s, Father Paone’s supervisor and a Beaver County district attorney intervened to stop criminal investigations of Father Paone’s molestation of boys. 

The diocese in 1994 then had Father Paone undergo a mental health evaluation, after which the priest returned to California.

The document originally misquoted by the diocese is a Jan. 30, 1996, letter from the diocese’s secretary for clergy, the Rev. Robert Guay, to the Diocese of San Diego regarding Father Paone’s fitness for ministry.

In addition to saying Father Paone had faculties from the diocese, Father Guay noted that the woman’s allegation was “vague” and lacked first-hand corroboration from her brother. The letter also said Father Paone denied the allegation and cooperated with the evaluation, which found no diagnosis of sexual interest in children or teens. The letter said there “has not been any other information that might give cause for concern over the past 30 years.”

The Pittsburgh Catholic website says the diocese sent information about the woman’s accusation and the 1994 diagnosis to dioceses in California and Nevada and that there was “no effort to keep his past a secret.” But the grand jury said none of this correspondence mentioned the allegations in the Paone files from more than 30 years previous.

Then-Bishop Wuerl removed Father Paone’s faculties in 2002, a year of nationwide scandal and reforms in the handling of abusive priests. Bishop Wuerl said that year he had “raised the bar” in response, removing priests based on a review of evidence.



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