PITTSBURGH — The facts unveiled in Tuesday’s release of a state grand jury report alleging that more than 1,000 children have been molested by priests in six Roman Catholic dioceses hit Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik hard.
“I feel betrayed,” the bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese said in making the diocese’s response to the report. “I was ordained a priest 43 years ago. The goal of my life as a priest is to reflect the person of Jesus Christ.
“The fact that other people who said yes (to the priesthood), the things that are recounted in this report are a tragedy, and I’m scandalized by it, so I can understand how the faithful are.”
Zubik opened and ended his press conference with apologies, telling “any victim of any abuse, sexual or otherwise … I ask you, the Church asks you for forgiveness.”
“We are sorry. I am sorry,” he said. “No one who has read (the report) can be unaffected.”
In presenting the report in Harrisburg, Attorney General Josh Shapiro cited the cases of three particular priests who stood accused of sexual abuse who had served in the Pittsburgh Diocese. All three — Father Ernest Paone (St. Monica, Wampum and St. Theresa, Koppel, 1961-62), Father Richard Zula (Madonna of Czestochowa, 1973-80) and Father George Zirwas (St. Joseph the Worker, 1981-82) — had served at one time in Lawrence County, although only Paone was accused here.
Shapiro cited report findings that said while Cardinal Donald Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh and while Zubik served under him as a priest, the two engaged in covering up Paone’s behavior by declining to inform other dioceses where Paone had served about his history.
Specifically mentioned was a 1989 letter from Wuerl to the Vatican, telling of several diocesan priests accused of sexually abusing children, advising transparency and noting his own responsibility to determine the “unassignability” of a priest.
“However, despite Wuerl’s summary of the serious and criminal nature of the problem to the Vatican,” the report says, “… Wuerl granted Paone's request to be reassigned again on Oct. 22, 1991.”
When a complaint arose in 1994, the report says, Wuerl notified the western U.S. dioceses where Paone was serving “but did not report the more detailed information contained within Dioceses records.”
It wasn’t until 2002, when another victim notified the diocese of being sexually abused by Paone in the 1960s, that the diocese notified the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office.
“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,” the report concluded. “Wuerl’s statements had been meaningless without any action.”
Shapiro lamented that some church officials who the report accuses of covering up abuse reports were later promoted, noting that Wuerl went from bishop to cardinal, and Zubik from priest to bishop.
Zubik, though, maintained that neither he nor Wuerl engaged in any sort of cover-up. He called Wuerl “passionate” about child abuse and would “look for ways in which the issue of child sexual abuse could be addressed.”
Zubik noted that Paone had been away from the Pittsburgh Diocese for 30 years when Wuerl first learned about his past.
“The information about him was in a different file cabinet,” Zubik said. “Once that information was garnered, that’s when Bishop Wuerl wrote to the bishops over the other dioceses that he had come across this information and that he wanted to be transparent.
“A cover-up would only be if you intentionally did it. If it wasn’t something that he knew, how could he be responsible for something that he didn’t know? … think what Bishop Wuerl did at the time he did based on the information that he had. I believe that because he was passionate about these things, he would not have done anything to make it seem that things what they were not.”
Zubik also emphasized that of 272 reported abuse incidents reported in the diocese, 245 occurred between the 1940s and 1990s. He noted that not only did the diocese begin reporting complaints directly to civil authorities in 2002, it also stopped relying on the recommendations of treatment centers as to whether accused priests were fit to return to ministry.
He also identified three new steps the diocese would take “to strengthen our practices to prevent child sexual abuse:
•Engaging an expert on the prevention of and prosecution of child sexual abuse to review diocese practices and make recommendations for improvement.
•The creation of a new position and the hiring of an experienced professional to actively monitor clergy who have been removed from ministry following allegations of child sexual abuse.
•The posting on the diocese website of a list of 83 priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh against whom there have been allegations of sexual abuse of minors, including some that the grand jury chose not to publish.
Before closing, Zubik reiterated his “sorrow for the pain (victims) have experience at the hands of someone who was supposed to care for your soul.”
“My apology,” he said, comes with our sincere effort to improve, and our continuing invitation to meet with you and assist with resources for healing.”