Diocese of Pittsburgh

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Coat of Arms of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh was established in the mid-19th century from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and served a large immigrant population that moved to western Pennsylvania to work in the steel mills.  Parishes and schools were constructed along ethnic lines and reflected the burgeoning steel industry until the late 1960’s and 1970’s when the area began to decline. 

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has a long history of its bishops going on to serve as archbishops and cardinals in other areas such as John Dearden (1950-58) who became Archbishop of Detroit and later cardinal.  John Wright succeeded Dearden in 1959 and remained in Pittsburgh until he was named Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy and made a cardinal in 1979.  His priest secretary was future bishop and Cardinal Donald Wuerl.  Anthony Bevilacqua, a former Brooklyn priest, served the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1983-1987 before being named Archbishop of Philadelphia where he was also made a cardinal.  Bevilacqua was succeeded in 1988 by Donald Wuerl, Cardinal Wright’s former secretary and Pittsburgh native.  Wuerl remained in Pittsburgh until his appointment as Archbishop of Washington in 2006 where he was made a cardinal.  The present bishop, David Zubik served as Wuerl’s secretary.

The history of bishops in a diocese is an important factor in the sexual abuse saga gripping the Catholic Church.  The sex abuse scandal did not appear out of a vacuum and if one examines the leadership of a particular diocese, a pattern of behavior becomes clear.  This is true in Pittsburgh.  Here is what one journalist writes about this phenomenon:

“I’m telling you, if the media ever start really digging into the life and times of Theodore McCarrick, and examining the system that produced him, and that he sustained, they are going to expose malicious networks of sexually active gay priests who use their power to protect and promote their kind. The late Richard Sipe wrote about the “genealogy” of sex abuse among clergy — see here for the basics — which was his way of characterizing the systemic, intergenerational way that patterns of abuse pass down through the Catholic priesthood. Powerful clergy — bishops and others — who are sexually active permit sexual activity among their priests, and recruit others to join in.”

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 St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In the 3rd volume of her Rite of Sodomy, Catholic author Randy Engel describes one of Pittsburgh’s bishops this way: “Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time tracking clerical sex abusers on the Internet cannot help but be impressed with the number of times the Diocese of Worcester pops up on the screen. To date there have been at least 50 cases of clerical sex abuse reported in the diocese, mostly diocesan priests who attended St. John’s Seminary in Brighton and a handful that received their formation and training for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome.”

Engel focuses on Wright and notes he brought his lifestyle with him to Pittsburgh.  Former Catholic journalist Rod Dreher comments on Engels work by writing, “From the time Pius XII made John Wright the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Worcester, the diocese has remained a clerical pederast’s paradise. 

Engel collects a lot of data on Wright, who moved on to become Bishop of Pittsburgh in 1959, and then migrated to Rome in 1969 to become a cardinal and the highest-ranking American in the Roman Curia. He participated in the conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, but because he was ill and confined to a wheelchair, his personal secretary, Monsignor Donald Wuerl, was allowed to accompany him into the conclave. Wright died in 1979.

Here is something startling from Engel’s book:

“To the best of my knowledge, even though Wright’s pederastic predilections were an “open secret” in the Archdiocese of Boston and its satellite dioceses of Worcester and Springfield for many years, no one has come forward to accuse him of sexual abuse until now.

His accuser is Mr. William Burnett, whose uncle, Rev. Raymond Page, served under Bishop Wright in Worcester.

According to Burnett, his uncle-priest owned a rustic private lakeshore retreat that he had built from an old cabin on the Massaconnet Shores of Hamilton Reservoir in Holland, Mass. When I asked him what he recalled about the lodge, Burnett said he remembered that the living-room/den was covered with heavy area rugs.

Burnett said that Bishop Wright was a regular guest at Page’s private retreat when he was there. He said like most Catholics, he was in awe of the bishop.

Burnett agreed to provide this writer with details of his sexual abuse at the hands of Wright and Page even though he said it was a difficult thing to do.

The following descriptions of acts perpetrated on young Bill Burnett are not related as an exercise in idle prurient interest. Rather they are intended to show the absolute depravity of the acts committed against Bill Burnett at the hands of his own uncle and that of Bishop Wright, and to ask the reader about how he would feel if William had been his own son.

Burnett stated that the abuse ritual began with drinks, a coke for him and coke and alcohol for Page and Wright. Wright would then undress him, fall on his knees before the standing boy and cover him with kisses.”

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Coat of Arms of John Wright as Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh 

Donald Wuerl became private secretary to Bishop Wright not long after his 1966 ordination. He moved into Wright’s residence in Pittsburgh, and of course followed him to Rome, after Wright was named Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy — that is, head of the Vatican’s apparatus for overseeing priests worldwide. The New York Times obituary for the cardinal said:

Meanwhile, he enjoyed the trappings of his post in the Vatican. He shared his fifth‐floor apartment with his secretary, the Rev. Donald Wuerl, whom he had taken with him from Pittsburgh. The apartment was said to be crammed with stereo equipment and his many books. Cardinal Wright enjoyed long conversations over a large dinner of pasta and he once said that he “confessed to Romanitas.”

Dreher summarized the Wright-Wuerl nexus this way, “There is reason to believe that Wuerl’s great mentor, spiritual father, and patron, the cardinal he served for 13 years, was an active homosexual, and indeed — on Bill Burnett’s testimony — a pederast. What, if anything, did Donald Wuerl know about Cardinal Wright’s private life? Was Wright personally compromised? What did Wright teach him about how to think about sexual activity among priests? Given what Richard Sipe has said about the “genealogical” aspect of clerical sexual abuse and misconduct — that is, this phenomenon passing down through the clerical ranks by sexually active prelates and seminary rectors recruiting and promoting those who share their sexual enthusiasm — the questions ought to be asked.

As Sipe tirelessly argued, sexual disorder among priests, cloaked by a veil of secrecy, provides a hothouse culture into which sexual criminal behavior with minors can thrive. Most sexually active priests would never molest a minor, but the importance of keeping their own sexual sins hidden made them likely to turn a blind eye when other priests did harm minors.”

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report mentions Wuerl 200 times.  In total, 99 priests from Pittsburgh were named in the report, 32 priests were referenced by the grand jury report in relation to Cardinal Wuerl’s time as bishop. Of these, 19 involved new cases or allegations which arose during his 18 years in charge of the diocese, during the years 1988-2006.

In this atmosphere, it is no wonder that the Grand Jury found a “circle of secrecy” (diocesan officials’ own words) and a child pornography ring that operated in and around Pittsburgh during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Here is an excerpt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article on the subject:

“Included among 99 abusive Pittsburgh diocese priests identified in the grand jury report was a ring of them, operating in the 1970s and 1980s, who shared intelligence about their victims and sometimes even shared the victims themselves.

That ‘ring of predatory priests’ made their own child pornography in church rectories, the grand jury said, and used ‘whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.’

They also marked their victims, the grand jury said, by giving their favorite boys gold cross necklaces to wear.

‘The grand jury observed that these crosses served another purpose beyond the grooming of the victims: They were a visible designation that these children were victims of sexual abuse,’ the report said. “They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization.’”

CBP Photography [Public domain] - The Archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Donald William Wuerl, presides over the event annually. Photo by James Tourtellotte.
Archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Donald William Wuerl. Photo by James Tourtellotte.

The Pittsburgh section of the report highlights three specific priests who, the grand jury found, symbolize “wholesale institutional failure that endangered the welfare of children” in the Pittsburgh Diocese.

Those cases, involving the Revs. George Zirwas, Ernest Paone and Richard Zula, show that after repeated accusations of abuse, the diocese either moved the priests to other assignments — or allowed them to reassign themselves, sometimes across the country.

Zirwas, whom Pittsburgh Catholic officials became aware of as early as 1987, continued to abuse children and even arranged for his transfer to the Archdiocese of Miami in the 1990’s.  Miami New Times reports:

“The report states the Diocese of Pittsburgh became aware of complaints against him as early as 1987, when the parents of a “little boy” met with the diocese to report that Zirwas had “inappropriately touched” the child. In February 1988, the report says, another “young man” reported that Zirwas had engaged in “unwanted sexual contact” with the victim. (In that instance, Zirwas admitted he touched the victim but claimed the boy had asked Zirwas to massage his legs.)

In November 1988, Zirwas was accused twice: First, a mother reported that he gave her 16-year-old son alcohol and then fondled the boy’s genitals. Another victim reported that Zirwas had groped him when he was 17.

In the meantime, Zirwas constantly evaded punishment. The grand jury found that he was repeatedly sent to Catholic “institutes” for counseling but that the cases were never reported to police. Zirwas continued to preach the entire time, and in June 1991, yet another victim came forward and said Zirwas had groped the boy’s feet, calves, thighs, and penis.

‘The victim informed the Diocese that he was too embarrassed to speak publicly regarding the abuse or go to court,’ the grand jury report states.

From there, Zirwas was transferred around the diocese numerous times before taking his first ‘personal leave of absence’ in 1994. In July 1995, he requested a transfer to Miami to escape ‘false rumors being spread about him.’

Zirwas also threatened to sue the diocese for alerting some parishioners that he had been accused of molestation. In 1995, then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl allowed Zirwas to return to the priesthood — but in November of that year, yet another victim said Zirwas had performed oral sex on him when the boy was 15 years old. Zirwas took his second, and final, leave of absence and moved to Fort Lauderdale. Yet another victim came forward in 1996.

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Map of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

Little is known about Zirwas’ final days in South Florida and Cuba, and it’s unclear if he preached while splitting time between the Miami area and Havana.”

Zirwas operated under Bishop Wuerl, escaped punishment, and continued to sexually assault children because Wuerl never reported this to law enforcement.  The current bishop, David Zubik, Wuerl’s secretary at the time, was the one who would investigate these allegations.  He did nothing either.  Yet, on the diocesan website the Bishop proudly proclaims “The Diocese of Pittsburgh ensures that our parishes and schools are safe environments for children and young people.”