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Pennsylvania AG: Cardinal under scrutiny over report on priest abuse 'is not telling the truth'

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is accusing Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, ...

Posted: Aug 20, 2018 6:26 AM
Updated: Aug 20, 2018 6:26 AM

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is accusing Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, of "not telling the truth" as he attempts to defend himself amid criticism and calls for his resignation over the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing allegations of widespread predatory behavior by more than 300 priests against more than 1,000 children.

The report is critical of Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years, from 1988 to 2006, and describes him as one of the bishops who helped cover up abusive behavior. The cardinal's defenders note that he acted to discipline some priests as bishop in Pittsburgh and even fought the Vatican against an order to reinstate a predator priest. After the release of the grand jury report on Tuesday, Wuerl said in a statement that it "confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse."

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The Pennsylvania attorney general disagrees. In a statement to CNN, Shapiro said, "Cardinal Wuerl is not telling the truth. Many of his statements in response to the Grand Jury Report are directly contradicted by the Church's own documents and records from their Secret Archives. Offering misleading statements now only furthers the cover up." Shapiro added that the cardinal "should heed the words of Pope Francis who validated our work in Pennsylvania and support the recommendations of the Grand Jury."

The grand jury report outlines in graphic detail allegations of child sex abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the diocese of Pittsburgh. It is based on witness testimony and a review of internal documents from the dioceses. The report concludes that the abuse of children was "brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all."

Some claims that Wuerl has made to defend himself do not stand up to scrutiny.

In an interview after the release of the report, Wuerl said, "I think I did everything that I possibly could," when asked if he did enough to stop the activity described.

Father Richard Zula and Father George Zirwas of the Pittsburgh diocese were two of a group of priests who, the grand jury found, "manufactured child pornography" and "used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims." In 1988, Zula was arrested and charged with over 130 counts related to child sex abuse.

A spokesman for Wuerl noted that Zula had been removed from his ministry before Wuerl came to Pittsburgh in 1988. That is true. According to the grand jury report, Zula took a leave of absence in 1987 prior to the start of Wuerl's tenure as Pittsburgh bishop. The report states that in 1996 Zula was allowed to resign and barred from "seeking future assignments" in the diocese.

But in 1989, Wuerl authorized a $900,000 confidential settlement between the diocese and the family of two of Zula's victims that included a hush agreement.

The diocese under Wuerl's leadership also hired a doctor who worked with Zula in an attempt to lessen his sentence with a statement that the grand jury found "blamed the child victim rather than the adult criminal."

The diocese also helped to secure Zula's early release after he was sentenced to state prison. According to the grand jury report, Zula told the diocese in 1992 that he could be eligible for early release and asked Wuerl to "confirm his future salary payments to assist him in obtaining his release." The report states, "In response to Zula's request, internal Diocesan documents revealed that Wuerl directed his subordinates to provide the requested information."

Edward McFadden, a spokesman for Wuerl, told CNN, "Zula was removed from ministry before Bishop Wuerl came to Pittsburgh. Thereafter, Bishop Wuerl neither returned Zula to ministry nor allowed him to serve as a priest."

In a recent interview with CBS News, Wuerl was asked if he ever moved priests quietly. He refuted having done so, saying, "that wasn't, that wasn't our process."

But that was the process with Father George Zirwas. The diocese of Pittsburgh, where Wuerl started as Bishop in 1988, "was aware of complaints against Zirwas for sexually abusing children as early as 1987" and continued to receive "additional complaints" between 1987 and 1995, according to the report, including in 1988 and 1991 while Wuerl was bishop of the diocese. But the grand jury found that "Zirwas continued to function as a priest during this period and was reassigned to several parishes."

Despite all this evidence, a spokesman for Wuerl maintained that he acted promptly in this case and removed Zirwas. McFadden told CNN, "there was no process or policy for 'moving' priests accused of misconduct. Rather, during his tenure, the Diocese promptly investigated allegations of child sexual abuse and took appropriate actions, including removal of priests from ministry." The spokesman added, "In the Zirwas case, as the Diocese of Pittsburgh makes clear, based on today's knowledge and experience this case would have been dealt with differently. That said, Bishop Wuerl did act promptly after learning of allegations and did remove Zirwas permanently."

Wuerl also told CBS News during an interview that "if there were allegations, we dealt with them immediately."

The predatory behavior of Father Ernest Paone dated back to the 1960s and he was shuffled from parish to parish all over the country, according to the grand jury report.

In 1991, Wuerl approved moving him to the diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, even though according to the report, the Pittsburgh diocese knew of Paone's past. And in 1996, Wuerl refrained from sharing everything the church knew about Paone's past with the diocese of San Diego.

The report notes that Wuerl had previously written to the Vatican that parishioners had a right to know if their priests were pedophiles. And a spokesman for Wuerl said that he acted promptly to notify others about the claims against Paone when he learned of them. "Regarding the Paone case, the man lived in California and Nevada from the mid-1960s onward and was not in the Pittsburgh Diocese when then-Bishop Wuerl arrived. Bishop Wuerl knew of no claims against Paone until July 25, 1994, and then acted promptly to notify others out of state of an allegation after he received it," McFadden said.

The report does note that in August 1994, Wuerl was sent a confidential memo notifying him of a new complaint against Paone. "Wuerl responded by dispatching letters notifying the relevant California and Nevada Dioceses of the 1994 complaint," the report states. But the report adds, "However, Wuerl did not report the more detailed information contained within Diocesan records. The Diocese did not recall Paone; nor did it suspend his faculties as a priest. To the contrary, Paone continued to have the support of the Diocese."

The grand jury concluded, "In spite of Wuerl's statements to the Vatican, the clear and present threat that Paone posed to children was hidden and kept secret from parishioners in three states. Wuerl's statements had been meaningless without any action."

The Washington archdiocese declined CNN's request to interview Cardinal Wuerl.

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