The groundbreaking investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania has raised questions about Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who spent 18 years as the bishop of Pittsburgh and now serves as the archbishop of Washington.
The grand jury depicts Wuerl’s actions in Pittsburgh as mixed, at times stopping abusive priests from continuing in their ministries in the diocese and at other times guiding them right back into parishes.
The Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, which probed six dioceses’ histories dating back to 1947 and alleges that more than 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children, comes at a time when the Washington archdiocese is already reeling.
Theodore McCarrick, who preceded Wuerl as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, stepped down last month from the College of Cardinals, becoming the first American cardinal in history to resign because he was accused of sexual abuse.
Wuerl had already denied knowing about the allegations against McCarrick, which include two accusations of sexually abusing minors and three more accounts of harassing young priests and seminarians.
On Tuesday, upon the release of the grand jury report, Wuerl also defended his conduct in Pittsburgh.
“While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse. I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report,” he said in a statement.
On Tuesday night, the Washington archdiocese posted a website, TheWuerlRecord.com, defending the cardinal.
The “Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania released a report regarding sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests in Pennsylvania,” the website says. “The following information highlights the child protection efforts of Cardinal Donald Wuerl during his tenure as the Bishop of Pittsburgh, from 1988 to 2006, and provides additional context not included in the report on Cardinal Wuerl’s work as a longtime advocate and voice on this issue.”
But some advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse criticized Wuerl upon reading the report. “I don’t feel very comfortable with Wuerl voting for the next pope if that opportunity arises in the next few years,” said Terry McKiernan, founder and president of the organization Bishop Accountability.
The grand jury report does include numerous examples of Wuerl refusing to return priests to parishes after they were accused of sexual abuse.
According to the investigation, Wuerl told Leo Burchianti — accused of sexually pursuing at least eight young boys, some of whom he told that he “wanted to rape” — that he would not grant his request to assign him to a new parish. Burchianti retired.
When Charles J. Chatt, who had admitted to sexual contact with six minors, asked to be assigned to a new parish, Wuerl refused and eventually requested Chatt’s withdrawal from ministry.
Perhaps most notably, Wuerl went all the way to the Vatican to fight an order that he reinstate Anthony J. Cipolla — and won.
But the report also includes times that Wuerl allegedly did the opposite, often based on the advice of psychiatrists at the sometimes-secretive church-run treatment centers where the diocese sent accused priests.
In 1995, professionals at a treatment center initially deemed Edward L. Kryston a risk, saying the church should exercise “extreme caution” and should allow him “NO contact with adolescents.” But after they softened their judgment the next year — saying Kryston did not demonstrate ephebophilia, a sexual attraction to adolescents but should still not be in ministry with teenage students — Wuerl assigned the priest to a parish, the report says. Wuerl eventually put Kryston on administrative leave in 2002. The grand jury found that as of 2016, he was still living in a church retirement home.
In a similar case, a 1989 psychiatric evaluation concluded that Thomas O’Donnell did not have a problem, even though parents had complained that the priest made children strip naked to get weighed at a school gym, made a child sleep with him while on a trip and talked about sex with a child, according to the report. Wuerl assigned O’Donnell in 2005 to live and work adjacent to a school, where parents complained about his previous conduct.
And in 1998, when doctors said that William P. O’Malley III hadn’t had sexual contact with a minor since 1982 and recommended that he be returned to ministry, Wuerl gave him a church job, the grand jury said. O’Malley kept appearing in clerical attire and celebrating Mass in public, although he had been banned from doing both. Yet instead of punishing him, Wuerl approved the diocese lending him more than $37,000 to cover debts he had incurred. Victims later came forward alleging O’Malley had abused them in 1998 and 1999 — after Wuerl had returned him to ministry.
Writer Michael Sean Winters said that, as he read the report Tuesday, he did not see the reprehensible actions of many of the bishops named in the report — such as concealing cases from the police and lying to victims’ families — in the sections on Wuerl.
What Winters saw was a bishop who earnestly wanted to confront the problem but also believed in the faulty science of his time. “We learned at a certain point that there’s no cure for this,” Winters said. “There were psychiatrists who said, ‘Yeah, you can return these guys.’ And you couldn’t. That was a mistake.”
Some conservatives who were already wary of Wuerl as a cardinal in Pope Francis’s more liberal mold judged him far more harshly. “Cardinal Wuerl does not deserve the freedom to resign of his own will,” National Review writer Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh, in a response to the grand jury, recounted a visit that Wuerl and David Zubik — then his secretary and now the bishop of Pittsburgh himself — made to two brothers who had been abused by priests in the diocese. The church’s lawyers told them they shouldn’t go, but Wuerl insisted. It was 1988, his first year as bishop.
“It was a watershed moment,” the diocese wrote. Wuerl called a mandatory meeting for all priests in his diocese that year, telling them that any sexual contact with a minor would result in removal from ministry and possible imprisonment.
Nick Cafardi, former dean of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University School of Law, said that after reading the report, he believed Wuerl was ahead of other bishops at his time. “I really think that overall Wuerl exercised his oversight properly,” he said.
Winters agreed: “Of all the bishops mentioned in this report, Wuerl was the one who understood just how wrong this was, before the others. I feel comfortable knowing that Don Wuerl has been ahead of the curve on clergy sex abuse the entire time he has been a bishop, and nothing I read in the report changes my assessment.”
The grand jury report also listed Cardinal William Henry Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, and detailed what had been widely reported — Keeler, who died last year, had as bishop of Harrisburg in the 1980s allowed a priest accused of having sex with underage girls to continue to run a parish and recommended another priest accused of having sex with girls be reassigned by his religious order.
That priest relocated to Baltimore in the early 1990s, when Keeler served as archbishop, the report said.
Keeler had won widespread praise for speaking out against sexual abuse by priests and releasing names of Archdiocese of Baltimore priests accused of sexual abuse over a span of seven decades.
The archdiocese of Baltimore said in a statement that it is “saddened and troubled” by Keeler’s failures.
“As a result of today’s painful revelations about the Cardinal’s failures to protect children while serving as Bishop of Harrisburg, it is no longer the plan of the Archdiocese to name the proposed new Catholic school in Baltimore after Cardinal Keeler,” the archdiocese said.
Gary Gately contributed to this report.