Bishop, Victim Discuss Priest Abuse, Suit
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
May 21, 2002
Bishop Donald Wuerl met yesterday with a man who sued the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh 14 years ago in a high-profile priest pedophile case. The man said Wuerl apologized to him and his mother.
The man, now 33, said he appreciated the apology but said the bishop evaded questions about how his case was first handled.
"He gave an unsolicited apology to myself and to my mother. He definitely reached out to her and apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church and said that he as a bishop was sympathetic to what we went through," the man said.
"He stood up and shook my mom's hand and, eye-to-eye, apologized to her."
The man, who has left the Catholic Church, said Wuerl also encouraged him to return and offered to pray with him, but the man said he refused.
"I didn't want to shoot him down, but I already pray," he said. "Praying in that room isn't going to heal me. I wasn't going to sit there and pray with him, because he should have prayed with me years ago."
A diocesan spokesman acknowledged that the meeting took place at the man's request, but said the diocese never reveals the content of such meetings.
The man sued in 1988, saying he had been molested from age 12 to 18 by the Rev. Anthony Cipolla. Cipolla, who maintains his innocence, was removed from ministry but appealed to the Vatican, whose highest court ordered Wuerl to reinstate him in 1993. Wuerl refused, and the Vatican court later reversed its decision.
The Vatican case turned on evidence from a police report in 1978, when Cipolla was charged with molesting a different 9-year-old boy whose mother later dropped the charges.
The diocese settled the lawsuit out of court in 1993 over Cipolla's protests.
When the case was filed, Wuerl told reporters that the accuser was not credible because he had made false claims about other students while briefly enrolled in seminary.
Yesterday, the man said, he asked if Wuerl believed him now.
"He answered 'yes.' He found me credible," said the man, now a paramedic in the Tri-State area. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
"Does that make me feel better? Does it take all my problems away? No. Does it help other victims? No. But we will see how he will reach out to those victims now," he said.
He and his mother had a half-hour meeting with Wuerl and Rita Flaherty, the lay social worker who since 1993 has led diocesan response to accusations of clergy misconduct. Although he had asked for the meeting, the man said he had decided not to ask for an apology. He believes the apology was sincere and that Wuerl's "heart is in the right place."
His mother expressed more skepticism. "I think he was pacifying us," she said.
She spoke of how other parishioners accused her of being a bad mother after her son's accusations became public. She said she was trying to raise five children on her own and was honored that a priest wanted to spend time with her son.
"I was happy that I had someone to watch over him. Little did I know," she said.
Her son was disappointed Wuerl did not answer his questions about how his case was handled early on. He wanted a better explanation of why he was not considered credible.
Nor did Wuerl provide an answer to his complaint that after initially agreeing to pay for counseling 15 years ago, the diocese stopped payment after three sessions. That was why he filed suit, he said.
Wuerl "said that they had learned from my case, that there had been growing pains and now they handle things differently," he said.
"He did tell me that he is going to accept the victims as they come forward now and help them to find the spiritual, pastoral and psychological help that they need."
The man said he hopes victims will receive better treatment than he did. He is organizing a support group for victims of clergy abuse through an e-mail list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wuerl encouraged him in that effort and the man, in turn, promised to urge accusers to make a formal report to the diocese. The man said he believes it is best for victims to give the diocese a chance to resolve the issues before they sue.
He also said the attorney for the diocese in his lawsuit asked him unnecessarily humiliating questions about sexual details, which led to a suicide attempt. He said he asked Wuerl not to allow such questioning, especially if it is clear that the accuser is credible.
Wuerl replied that once a victim sues, the matter is handled according to civil law, the man said.
"But I think you still have to have some compassion for what we went through," he said of the victims.
Later, in an interview, the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said that the attorney who represented the diocese in that case was employed by the diocese's insurer. Other lawyers who cross-examined the man were hired by Cipolla because the diocese does not pay the legal expenses of accused priests, he said.
After the meeting, the man said he wanted Wuerl to remember him.
"I made that clear to him -- put me in the back of your mind when you see a victim," he said. "When you are about to embark on an investigation, think of me telling you what you put me and my family through."
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