Daniel Pilarczyk | 1934-2020: Former Cincinnati archbishop led southwest Ohio Catholics for 27 years
By Dan Horn
March 23, 2020
Former Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who guided southwest Ohio's Catholics through some of the church’s most trying times, died Sunday in Cincinnati. He was 85.
Pilarczyk, who had been in declining health for years, led the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for more than a quarter century and was the nation’s longest-serving bishop when he retired in 2009. His final years in the top job came as the church struggled with widespread allegations of clergy abuse.
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Pilarczyk's life in the church began as a Catholic schoolboy in his hometown of Dayton, where classmates knew him as the bright, witty kid who "never got in trouble with the nuns."
Decades later, as a priest and bishop, Pilarczyk became a leader of the American church and held some of its most prestigious jobs, including president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Archbishop Pilarczyk was recognized as one of the outstanding churchmen of his time," said Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, his successor in Cincinnati. "He unselfishly devoted his entire priesthood to this archdiocese."
Despite his achievements, Pilarczyk’s tenure as the leader of the archdiocese was a challenging time for him, his church and the region’s half-million Catholics.
Pilarczyk, like most of his fellow bishops, dealt with a worsening shortage of priests, parish closures, budget cuts and the clergy abuse scandal, which angered and divided Catholics across the country.
The abuse crisis, in particular, took a toll on the church and the leaders who had failed to protect children for decades. The crisis culminated locally in 2003, when Pilarczyk stood in a Cincinnati courtroom as a judge convicted the archdiocese of failing to report sexual abuse. It was the first time a Catholic institution in the United States had been convicted of such a crime.
Dozens of children were abused by as many as 30 priests in the archdiocese, according to Bishop Accountability, which tracks abuse cases nationwide. Court records and other documents showed church officials failed to publicly disclose allegations against priests and, in some cases, moved them from parish to parish after allegations arose.
"He protected the reputation of the church and his priests and himself," said Dan Frondorf, a Cincinnati man who was abused by a priest as a child and later became active in advocacy groups for abuse survivors. "He failed to act in the best interest of children."
Pilarczyk, who was not charged with wrongdoing himself, later acknowledged the difficulty of those days and admitted he and his predecessors made mistakes in their oversight of accused abusers.
"Before the Lord and His people, I want to say that I regret what happened," he said in his final homily before retirement. "I made some inadequate decisions and people got hurt and I’m sorry."
Some called for Pilarczyk’s resignation when the scandal erupted, but he remained on the job and oversaw the implementation of new child protection policies, background checks and other rules intended to prevent future abuse.
As archbishop, friends and associates say, he believed it was his responsibility to correct the errors of the past. They say that’s why he went to court in 2003 to deliver the archdiocese’s "no contest" plea, even though any church representative could have done it.
"He didn’t have to do that. He could have sent the chancellor. He could have sent me," said Dan Andriacco, the archdiocese’s former communications director. "That was one of those times I had a lot of respect for him."
Quiet scholar who took on big challenges
The abuse crisis was Pilarczyk’s greatest challenge, but it wasn’t the only one. Tight budgets, parish mergers and the seventh largest Catholic school district in the country all were his responsibility.
Friends say he tackled the job with vigor, as well as with administrative skill and a cool-under-pressure demeanor that served him well.
Even a ruptured brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1988 kept him away for only about eight weeks.
Sister Sharon Euart, the former executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, said she saw that dedication and skill in action when she served with Pilarczyk as general secretary at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
She said he was a no-nonsense guy who was more interested in finding practical solutions than in talking about problems for hours at a business meeting.
"People always teased him about how quickly he could get through an agenda," Euart said.
She said Pilarczyk was comfortable and successful doing the behind the scenes work most Catholics rarely see, such as developing policies, resolving disputes and balancing a budget.
The work suited him, friends say, in part because he was shy and often came across in public as more scholarly than pastoral. It was a lament Pilarczyk heard often from his critics when he spoke on emotional topics, such as parish closings or the abuse crisis.
He was whip-smart and on top of the issues. But if people came looking for tears and a warm embrace, they rarely got that from Pilarczyk.
The archbishop acknowledged as much in 2009 when he looked back on his career and expressed some regret about not being a little more "warm and fuzzy."
"If I could do it over, I would try maybe to be a little bit friendlier," he said. "But then you run the risk of being a phony."
Those who know him well say Pilarczyk got a bad rap when it came to his public persona. They say he cared deeply about the church and the people he served, and that his cool demeanor was too often mistaken for disinterest.
"He had a strong pastoral sensitivity to the needs of the church and the people," Euart said. "He has incredible administrative skill, but at the same time he’s very warm and personable.
"The more you interacted with him, the more you saw that side of him."
Euart said she saw it when she became the first woman to hold the job of general secretary at the bishop’s conference, an organization dominated by men. She was intimidated at first, but Pilarczyk put her at ease.
"For him, it was not an issue," she said. "He never treated me different than he did the priests."
She said he could be funny, too, and knew how to use his dry sense of humor to cut through the tension. When asked a few years ago about the many challenges in his career, Pilarczyk smiled and referred to it instead as "a calling."
"You answer the call," he said. "Although there are times when you think, ‘Why did I ever say yes?’ "
Rev. Terrance Schneider, Pilarczyk’s administrative assistant from 1985 to 1992, said that softer side of the archbishop often was overshadowed by the disciplined intellectual most people saw.
"It’s not that his heart was a weakness," Schneider said. "It’s that his mind was a strength."
Praying for the best, planning for worst
Those who worked with him over the years say Pilarczyk was, not surprisingly, a spiritual man. But he also was a realist who prayed for the best and planned for the worst.
He worked to expand the seminary, for example, while at the same time preparing the church for life with fewer priests.
His "Futures Project," a years-long undertaking, created 100 pastoral regions that would allow the archdiocese to operate with as few as 100 priests if necessary – about two-thirds the number of active diocesan priests today.
"He was pretty straightforward in the things that had to be dealt with," Schneider said. "He’d say, ‘Here’s the issue. Let’s get focused on this.’ "
Pilarczyk knew some of his decisions would rankle Catholics and non-Catholics alike, drawing complaints that he was too liberal or too conservative, too political or not political enough.
He caught flak – and won praise – in 2009 when he banned a nun from teaching at archdiocesan parishes because she supported the ordination of women priests, a violation of Catholic teachings.
He got a similar reaction that same year when he publicly opposed the University of Notre Dame’s choice of President Barack Obama as commencement speaker, on grounds the president’s support for abortion rights made him unsuitable.
None of those decisions were made on the spur of the moment. "I come across as a person who thinks things through, who says ‘This is the way it is,’ " Pilarczyk said of his approach in 2007. "All of us can only be who we are."
His thoughtfulness and intelligence got him noticed early in his career. He studied at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome before his ordination in 1959 and quickly rose through the ranks of the archdiocese when he returned home.
He became auxiliary bishop in 1974 and archbishop in 1982. Always a curious student, he went on to earn doctorates in both theology and classics, combining his love of faith and literature.
His goals in retirement included reading Homer in the original Greek and all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian.
Another goal was to get some rest. After serving 27 years as archbishop, Pilarczyk said he had done all he could do to leave the archdiocese in "sound and healthy" shape.
But the challenges had been great, he said. And he was tired.
"I don’t think this has been the easiest time to be the Archbishop of Cincinnati, but I don’t think my predecessors would say I really had it hard and they had it easy," he said.
"You take what the Lord sends and you do the best you can with it."