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Donald Wuerl’s handling of abuse claims imperils his legacy as a reformer

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, seen in May 2017, has said he will go to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Pope Francis.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, seen in May 2017, has said he will go to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Pope Francis. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

A dozen years before he became a top leader in the Catholic Church, Donald Wuerl was weighing a fateful decision. It was 1994, and Wuerl, then a bishop, had removed a priest accused of child sex abuse from a Pittsburgh-area parish. But the priest refused to get psychiatric treatment, and instead asked Wuerl for time off.

Wuerl — now a cardinal and the archbishop of Washington — granted the leave of absence, allowing the Rev. Robert J. Castelucci to relocate to Ohio without alerting authorities or parishioners, law enforcement records show.

Only after police in Ohio began investigating a 16-year-old boy’s allegation that “Father Bob” plied him with pornography and performed oral sex on him did Wuerl tell Castelucci he could no longer present himself as a priest in public, according to internal church documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The case, one of hundreds mentioned in a groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report released last month, sheds light on how Wuerl handled sex abuse claims in the Pittsburgh Diocese from 1988 to 2006 — a period that now threatens to rewrite his legacy and hasten the end of his career. Wuerl, 77, announced recently that he would go to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Pope Francis, and although it is not clear when that meeting will take place, Wuerl is scheduled to be in Rome this weekend.

While Wuerl built a reputation as an early advocate for removing pedophile priests from parishes, a Post examination found that at times he allowed accused clerics to continue as priests in less visible roles without alerting authorities or other officials. The review focused on the 25 priests whose cases, according to the grand jury, Wuerl handled directly.

Six accused priests were permitted to return to clerical roles after receiving psychiatric treatment at church-backed facilities only to be removed after the church’s sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, records show. Three others were allowed to take leave or to remain on leave, staving off disciplinary proceedings and allowing them to present themselves as priests in good standing when they moved to Ohio, California and Florida.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Diocese defended Wuerl, saying he went to great lengths to move accused priests out of parishes even though the church’s rules at the time limited his authority to remove them entirely. “He used any available channels to remove offenders from ministry and, if that was not possible, to remove them from parish ministry,” spokeswoman Ann Rodgers said.

A spokesman for the Washington Archdiocese acknowledged that Wuerl’s efforts “in a small number of cases may have been imperfect, but the goal was always to remove the priests from ministry involving children,” said Edward McFadden. He also said Wuerl relied on medical advice when he returned priests to ministry.

By the time Wuerl left Pittsburgh in 2006, McFadden said, all priests who had been “credibly accused of child sexual abuse” during Wuerl’s tenure had been removed from ministry involving minors.

Through McFadden, Wuerl declined an interview request.  

The Post’s examination of Wuerl’s handling of sex abuse claims expands on the grand jury report by drawing on additional court, police and church documents and interviews with victims who have not previously spoken publicly. It found that Wuerl’s actions in some cases did not prevent abuse from happening again.

In one instance, Wuerl allowed a priest who had admitted to abusing children to continue as a hospital chaplain in the 1990s, advising that he keep a “low profile,” the grand jury found. The hospital told The Post it was not informed of the allegation and wouldn’t have allowed him to work there if it had been. A college student who met the priest in the Pittsburgh-area hospital later accused him of sexual misconduct, according to the report, which did not provide details.

In another case, the grand jury found, Wuerl’s staff disclosed to church officials in California only one of multiple sex abuse allegations against a priest who had moved there on leave, allowing him to continue as a priest. Last month, an advocacy group said a woman had come forward alleging that the priest molested her in California when she was 9 years old.

Wuerl’s supporters credit him with removing sexually deviant priests long before his counterparts in other dioceses across the country. It was an issue he was forced to confront from the start. 

When he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1988, the diocese had just removed two priests from ministry after altar boys told a counselor they had been molested. In Wuerl’s first six months on the job, those two priests were charged with over 100 counts of abuse, including “deviate sexual intercourse.”

Wuerl formed a diocesan-level review board to look at allegations of sex abuse. He also hired a full-time social worker to oversee the response to victims. And in the mid-1990s, he was among a group of bishops who lobbied to extend the canonical statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.

But there were limits to the changes.

Calls for Wuerl's resignation build after archbishop’s explosive letter

Bill Cammarata, who led the state’s Office of Children, Youth and Families in the Pittsburgh area, said he called the new bishop in November 1988 to make clear that he believed the church was mandated to report allegations of child abuse to civil authorities.

Cammarata, whose welfare agency office was a block from the Pittsburgh Diocese’s offices, remembers scheduling an appointment with Wuerl and arriving to instead find a monsignor and a lawyer for the diocese in a conference room, unwilling to concede. “I said to them, my position is you should be reporting these, the church, as an entity, are mandated reporters,” Cammarata said. “The lawyer said we have a different opinion. That was the sum total of the meeting.”

Months later, Wuerl was provided a summary report on the meeting, and letters between Cammarata’s office and “the Bishop illustrated a disagreement as to whether the law’s mandates applied to Diocesan personnel,” the grand jury found. 

Diocese officials have said that state law required them to report to law enforcement only abuse against those who were minors at the time of the allegation — not adults claiming prior sex abuse. The result was that for Wuerl’s first 14 years in Pittsburgh there was no protocol for church officials to inform law enforcement when adults alleged past abuse.

Rodgers, the Pittsburgh Diocese spokeswoman, told The Post that Wuerl “was a reformer, but like any reformer, he had to work within the law at the time.”

“Throughout the 1990s, it was extremely difficult to permanently remove priests who had committed serious misconduct of any kind unless they admitted it or they were criminally charged and convicted,” Rodgers said. 

When allegations did reach law enforcement or the courts, Wuerl’s response was forceful and decisive. In 1993, Wuerl traveled to Rome in hopes of overturning the Vatican’s ruling that he had to reinstate an abusive priest who had been publicly accused of molesting a teenage boy but refused to get psychiatric treatment. Wuerl eventually won his battle to remove the Rev. Anthony Cipolla. But the bishop took a different approach to another case only a year later.

Wuerl’s deputies in Pittsburgh got the first complaint about Robert Castelucci, the priest who would move to Ohio, in October 1994.

Ed Stamerra Jr., then in his early 30s, told church leaders that Castelucci had abused him for years starting in the mid-1970s when Stamerra was a 13-year-old altar boy.

He has never spoken publicly about the abuse. He is referred to as “Victim 1” in the grand jury report, and he sued the diocese in 2004 under the name “John Doe IX,” resulting in an out-of-court settlement that he said amounted to $60,000. He agreed to an interview with The Post — and faulted Wuerl for actions after learning of Castelucci’s alleged abuse.

“He should have never become a cardinal,” Stamerra said.

Stamerra, 55, grew up in a family of 10 children, attending a church with a largely Italian congregation in Braddock, just outside Pittsburgh. 

Castelucci, he said, would regularly pull him out of Catholic grade school to assist with funerals. While cleaning up in the rectory, Castelucci engaged in anal and oral sex and masturbation with the teenager, said Stamerra, who estimated that he was abused more than 50 times over several years. He said Castelucci paid him for sex.

“It always involved money,” said Stamerra, adding that Castelucci would also give him cigarettes and beer as enticements. 

Castelucci, who could not be reached for comment despite repeated efforts, has denied any wrongdoing.

Stamerra told Wuerl’s deputies about the abuse in October 1994, the grand jury found. He told The Post that the diocese did not encourage him to report the abuse to civil authorities, despite the diocese stating in a 1993 policy change that it would begin urging victims to go to law enforcement. 

Church officials in Pittsburgh found the allegations credible because Stamerra could describe Castelucci’s anatomy in detail, according to the grand jury report. Stamerra said he told them Castelucci had one testicle. The diocese immediately sent Castelucci for a psychological evaluation, resulting in a recommendation he receive inpatient treatment. 

Castelucci refused, according to the grand jury report. He was granted a leave of absence to care for his ailing mother, who lived more than 50 miles away in Negley, Ohio, records show. 

At his mother’s home, Castelucci was by all appearances a priest taking time off. 

He wore clerical clothing — a Roman collar and black shirt — and was known as “Father Bob,” Lt. Allan Young, a sheriff’s detective in Columbiana County, Ohio, told The Post. Over the next five years, Wuerl granted Castelucci three extensions of his leave, the grand jury found. 

The Pittsburgh Diocese spokeswoman said, given the difficulties of removing priests, Wuerl often put them on leaves of absence to keep them out of parishes. Under canon law, she added, these leaves of absence must be renewed periodically to keep the cleric out of ministry. 

In May 1999, an Ohio mother reported to authorities that “Father Bob” had given her 16-year-old son pornographic videos, according to a police report obtained by The Post through a public records request. The boy “has cut Father Bob’s grass the past three (3) years,” the report states. County detectives interviewed Castelucci, who was in his early 60s at the time, and determined he had performed oral sex on the teenage boy, Young said. They forwarded the findings to the county prosecutor. 

In July 1999, the Pittsburgh Diocese learned of the investigation in Ohio. On July 23, Wuerl’s vicar in charge of personnel fired off a letter to Castelucci, a copy of which was obtained by The Post.

“In light of the recent allegation regarding your conduct and by special mandate of the Most Reverend Bishop . . . your leave of absence for personal reasons is hereby revoked and you are hereby placed on Administrative leave,” the letter states. It prohibited him from performing the sacraments, wearing clerical attire or presenting himself as “a priest in good standing.”

Wuerl also alerted church officials in Ohio to the previous allegations for the first time, according to another letter obtained by The Post. But the letter appears to have incorrectly characterized the 1994 allegations that led to Castelucci’s initial leave of absence as “involving adults,” not a 13-year-old.

“Father Castelucci some time ago asked for a personal leave to care for his elderly mother now living in Ohio,” Wuerl wrote the bishop in Youngstown, Ohio. “His request coincided with allegations of sexual misconduct involving adults that would have necessitated his stepping aside from ministry while the issue was investigated and some determination made.”

Wuerl wrote that “new allegations of inappropriate activity” had come to light and informed the bishop of the new prohibitions on Castelucci.

In an interview, the prosecutor at the time said he decided to pass on charges because the boy was the legal age of consent by months.

“Unfortunately, 16 years old was the age of consent, and there was never an allegation that this was anything other than consensual,” said Robert Herron, the Columbiana County prosecutor then and now. The boy, now in his 30s, declined an interview request. The Post does not identify victims of abuse unless they agree to be named.

Between 2002 and 2011, three additional adults came forward with allegations that Castelucci abused them in the 1970s. In March 2002, after the first of those additional allegations, Pittsburgh church officials met with Castelucci and told him that “it was in his best interest to voluntarily withdraw from ministry rather than be subjected to a canonical process,” the grand jury found. Castelucci submitted a handwritten letter withdrawing and another denying any wrongdoing.

The Post attempted to reach Castelucci by phone, by email and by a mailed letter and asked a family member, an attorney who handled his 2001 bankruptcy, and the Pittsburgh Diocese for contact information in an effort to locate him. But he could not be reached for comment.

The Post also found that the diocese, under Wuerl, let a priest who had admitted to prior abuse keep a job as a hospital chaplain without informing Braddock Hospital.

Joseph Karabin had already received treatment for sex abuse twice in the 1980s and had been assigned to serve as a hospital chaplain before Wuerl’s tenure began. Another complaint came in 1991 from an adult who said Karabin had fondled him and tried to have anal sex with him when he was 13 or 14, according to the grand jury report, which does not specify the year the alleged abuse occurred. Karabin admitted to making a sexual pass but said he was in an “alcoholic stupor” at the time, the grand jury found.

Karabin stayed at the hospital as a chaplain. In the coming years, Karabin asked to be reassigned to parishes twice. Both times Wuerl said no. Handwritten notes on a 1997 letter Karabin sent to Wuerl state, in part: “Bishop Wuerl feels that it is best that he remain at Braddock Hospital and that Joe keep a ‘low profile,’ ” according to the grand jury report, which does not specify who wrote the notation. 

Later that same year, in a memo cited by the grand jury, diocesan officials were discussing a new complaint against Karabin related to his hospital work. The details of that allegation are not included in the grand jury report. “There is nothing in our file relating to the more recent allegation you spoke of made by a college youth who met Father Karabin at Braddock Hospital,” read a memo to the current bishop in Pittsburgh, David Zubik. 

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which had acquired the now-defunct Braddock Hospital in 1996, told The Post that it was not aware of sexual misconduct allegations against Karabin. It also said the diocese did not tell the hospital about Karabin’s past.

“Had UPMC known or been made aware of the sexual abuse allegations against Rev. Karabin in 1996 at the time we were acquiring Braddock Hospital, the policies and procedures UPMC had in place would have resulted in an immediate suspension, followed by a thorough investigation, and termination if the investigation uncovered corroborating facts,” a hospital spokesman said.

As the scandal in the Boston Archdiocese was unfolding in early 2002, Wuerl withdrew Karabin from the ministry. Karabin continued working at the hospital part time as a social worker, the hospital said, but left in 2004, a month after a lawsuit was filed alleging that Wuerl and the diocese enabled Karabin to abuse a teenage boy in the early 1980s. Karabin died in 2016.

In 1994, the Pittsburgh Diocese received a complaint about Ernest Paone, a priest who was on leave from the diocese and had been working in a middle school in Southern California for nearly two decades. A woman said that her brother had been molested by Paone decades earlier in Pittsburgh and, according to the grand jury report, that “her father ‘went to the rectory with a shotgun and told Father Paone that he better leave town.’ ”

According to the grand jury report, Wuerl notified his church counterparts in California of the allegation — but did not mention “multiple” abuse claims detailed in the diocese files, dating to the 1960s.

Paone was sent to a church-run treatment program and allowed to return to ministry in the San Diego area, where he worked under the auspices of the Pittsburgh Diocese.

In 1996, Wuerl again missed an opportunity to alert others of Paone’s past abuses. Church officials in California wrote to Wuerl asking him to sign an affidavit for insurance purposes that Paone, who was returning to ministry, had no “history of sexual involvement with minors or others.”

The Pittsburgh Diocese does not appear to have disclosed Paone’s record from the 1960s. Wuerl’s secretary for clergy wrote that “Father Paone has not had any assignment in the [Pittsburgh] diocese for over 30 years. Thus, the only appropriate information about him has already been communicated to you,” the grand jury found. The grand jury report says Wuerl directed the secretary for clergy to respond but does not say whether he directed the specific response. Wuerl did not sign the affidavit.

The arrangement for Paone to stay in ministry in California finally ended in 2002, after the Boston Globe revealed a pattern of the church relocating pedophile priests from parish to parish and using sick leave to mask times that priests were in inpatient settings for psychiatric treatment.

In response to the Boston scandal, Wuerl’s staff wrote to the San Diego Diocese regarding Paone. The letter said that due to the “recent difficulties in the Church and having raised the bar on allegations brought against our priests,” Pittsburgh was withdrawing Paone’s ability to practice as a priest and placing him on administrative leave.

In the months after Boston, Wuerl acted to permanently remove a total of five priests with long-standing allegations of abuse whom he had allowed to remain in some form of ministry.

In California, another allegation has since surfaced against Paone.

A woman last month contacted the Los Angeles chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, saying she had been molested by Paone in the Pomona area when she was 9 years old.

Esther Miller, the president of the chapter, who interviewed the woman, said the alleged victim remembers Paone repeatedly coming to her family’s home for dinner after he celebrated Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church. In recent weeks, the parish in Diamond Bar, Calif., has also posted a note in its Sunday bulletin about Paone, who died in 2012, asking anyone who may have been a victim to call a hotline number at the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

“They let him move out here, say Mass and didn’t tell anyone,” Miller said. They “were really sending out a monster. I find the church in Pittsburgh very culpable.” 

Alice Crites and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.