By now the collective processing of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury results [referred to as PGJ throughout today’s post] has settled in, and publications and blogsites are turning focus to what future steps can be taken to avoid such things as have happened in Pennsylvania. The PGJ tells of the extent of abuse with numerical precision and devastating cruelty. But the report goes much further, to the question of cover-up and the relocation of credibly abused clerics allowing for yet more abuse. What gets less attention elsewhere is exactly how a diocesan cover-up works. I will address the reasons bishops engage in secrecy in Tuesday’s post. And so, I turn to a diocese with which I have rich family and personal connections, the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh encompasses the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. Its northern reaches extend to the coal mining and oil drilling and refining regions of the diocese in Butler County, though both industries were in serious decline by the time I was a small child and went with my family for a week’s vacation at my father’s family homestead, a home atop a steep hill, next door to the parish church and rectory. My grandfather operated a small coal mine near the Allegheny River; my aunt operated a drive-in theater about five miles away. For a city kid, rural Pennsylvania was a fun vacation. The PGJ identified twelve abusive clerics in Butler County, though I never had any negative experiences along those lines.
This is not to say that everything was fine at the neighboring church, either. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old when the residential pastor suffered severe substance abuse. As older generations passed along the story to me, the pastor did not appear for the Midnight Mass one Christmas Eve, and several men in the parish found him passed out on the floor from excessive drinking. I believe that parishioners reached out to the diocese about their concerns, but with no results. Thus, my Uncle Charley, a devout Catholic but a man not to be trifled with, either, invited other worried parishioners to offer the rosary in church on a regular, possibly daily, basis.
It was not long after this practice began that the Diocese of Pittsburgh contacted my uncle and warned him to discontinue. The official charge, as quoted to me, was a very serious violation of Canon Law, which in the 1950’s forbade any layman from conducting a church service.
Uncle Charley was a clever guy, though, and he just relocated the nightly rosary to his own property. I have very vivid memories of kneeling in wet grass at sunset, with a large statue of the Virgin Mary set in the bucolic beauty of the Allegany Mountains. If my memory is correct the alcoholic pastor eventually achieved sobriety, and his successor was a fine pastor with whom I was friends for about 25 years. But as I processed this memory I came to several conclusions: (1) chanceries know what is going on, even in the hinterlands, and (2) chanceries can move on a dime when so motivated.
My Uncle Charley would run for postmaster of his town a decade later and won despite his insistence on not paying the customary bribes to higher officials. At about the same time another layman, a law enforcement officer, did not resist dealing with the devil. The District of Attorney of Beaver County, next to Butler County, and Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Leonard shared correspondence in 1964 which appears in the PGJ as evidence. To wit, on May 1,1962, Msgr. Edmund Sheehy notified then Pittsburgh Bishop John Wright about the conduct his (Sheedy’s) young associate, Father Ernest Paone. The PGJ quotes from Sheedy’s letter that Paone “was involved in conduct scandalous to the priesthood and scandalous to the people.” Paone was removed from Sheedy’s parish and transferred to another within the diocese.
Sheedy had apparently intervened with law enforcement in Beaver County, for Paone’s illegal activities were well known. On August 4, 1964 the District Attorney of Beaver County wrote to Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Leonard that he was halting all investigations regarding boys so as to avoid bad publicity [for the diocese]. Remarkably, the District Attorney, Robert Masters, was alive in 2017 and met with the PGJ. “Masters was confronted with his letter which the Grand Jury obtained from Diocesan files. When asked by the attorney for the Commonwealth why he would defer to the Bishop on a criminal matter, Master replied, ‘Probably respect for the Bishop. I really have no proper answer.’ Masters also admitted he was desirous of support from the Diocese for his political career.” Masters entered this arrangement in 1964, and its influence would last nearly half a century. Collusion between church, civil, and criminal officials has been determined in a number of cover-up scenarios, perhaps most blatantly in the neighboring Altoona-Johnstown diocese where the bishop personally approved of candidates for county sheriffs.
Meanwhile, Father Paone took an indefinite leave of absence beginning in May 1966, “for psychological and spiritual health.” In the following year he worked his way to the West Coast and apparently, on his own, connected with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and later the Diocese of San Diego. That a priest from the East relocate to the West is not unheard of, and there are sometimes good reasons to do so, such as for graduate schooling or teaching. It is a low risk proposition for the hosting diocese, since priestly faculties and benefits—not to mention legal accountability—remain with the original diocese, in this case Pittsburgh. Would the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have accepted Father Paone knowing of his “troubles” is very hard to say. The thinking of the day was that a change of scenery often helped a priest with his problems, though there is no evidence that any bishop west of the Rockies was informed of Father Paone’s history.
The PGJ does not take an optimistic view. It documents about 25 years of correspondence from Pittsburgh renewing Father Paone’s permissions [technically known as “priestly faculties”] for his West Coast work. Aside from this formality, investigators found little other correspondence between the priest’s Pittsburgh’s bishops and the western dioceses where he was working, and it specifically cited later Pittsburgh Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua for what it sees as an almost total neglect of duty in supervising his priests.
The Paone story takes an interesting turn through the intervention from, of all places, the insurance underwriters of the Diocese of San Diego. Donald Wuerl was now the bishop of Pittsburgh, and he received correspondence from his counterpart in San Diego on the matter of Father Paone’s renewal of faculties. As the PGJ puts it, “On July 29, 1996, Wuerl was informed by the Chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego that Paone had continued with his ministry, but, "acting on the advice of our insurance carrier," he was requesting that Wuerl complete the enclosed affidavit, which stated, among other things, that Paone has "not had any problems involving sexual abuse, any history of sexual involvement with minors or others, or any other inappropriate sexual behavior." Wuerl also learned that during his time out west Father Paone had served as a chaplain to a Catholic girls’ high school. Wuerl was also receiving complaints about the priest from his time in Pittsburgh thirty years earlier.
[You may be wondering how Father Paone was conducting himself out west. The PGJ obviously could not subpoena documents from California, so one can only guess if there are records in the vaults of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, or San Diego, or later, Reno on this matter. There is no evidence on paper or in testimony to the PGJ, nor did anyone from Pittsburgh seem to take much interest. This may be a case of the proverbial “falling through the cracks.”]
Having received this request from San Diego, Bishop Wuerl did notify Los Angeles and San Diego of an abuse complaint received by the Pittsburgh diocese in 1994 over an event that occurred in the 1960’s. But in a strange twist—and this is where Bishop Wuerl comes under fire—he ordered Father to report to St. Luke’s Institute for an evaluation instead of reporting the priest to civil authorities as is done today. [I will address treatment facilities in future posts.] The PGJ describes what the diocese informed St. Luke: “In a confidential letter sent to St. Luke's, the Diocese acknowledged that Paone had been teaching seventh and eighth grade students in the Diocese of San Diego for 19 years. Further, in another confidential memorandum sent from [priest personnel coordinator Father] Zubik to Wuerl, Paone' s various assignments and sexual abuse complaints were again listed in detail. The Grand Jury noted that this process showed no concern for public safety or the victims of child sexual abuse. The handling of these matters was commonplace. Despite the complaint, Paone continued in active ministry following his brief evaluation at a church -based treatment facility.” [Italics mine.]
With all this information at hand, Wuerl did not revoke Paone’s priestly faculties and permitted him to continue his work out west. One wonders if there was any reaction or concern, particularly in San Diego. There is no documentation of this sort. It was not until the Boston Globe’s Spotlight 2002 reporting that the Pittsburgh Chancery notified the San Diego Diocese that Father Paone’s faculties were being revoked. At the same time, Bishop Wuerl, on July 9, 2002, notified law enforcement of one incident perpetrated by Father Paone in 1963, a case in which the statute of limitations had long run out. There was no mention of any other illegal behavior such as noted in the diocesan correspondence with St. Luke. As the PGJ summarizes this history, “Approximately 41 years after the Diocese learned that Paone was sexually assaulting children, he was finally retired from active ministry.”
I had hoped to include a second case; each diocesan investigation includes three such cases. The case of Father George Zirwas is notable for, among other things, his attempts to shake down the diocese of Pittsburgh in exchange for financial award. Having been confronted about his abusive behavior, Father Zirwas threatened to expose a ring of active homosexual priests. [The PGJ does confirm something of this sort.] The price for his silence was an enhanced living allowance.
Bishop Wuerl called his bluff, indicating that the priest either give him a list of all members of the ring or forfeit all future monetary support from the diocese. Wuerl attached a proviso that Father Zirwas swear he knew the names of no priests involved in predatory group behavior, as a condition for his financial diocesan report. Zirwas took the latter option and moved on to Miami and eventually Cuba, where he was murdered.
Again, a golden opportunity to protect minors was lost. For during the Zirwas investigation the PGJ did uncover evidence of an organized ring of abusers who recruited and groomed adolescent victims. The sordid details are outlined in the Zirwas section of the report. Had Wuerl reported Zirwas’s original threat to law enforcement, a full independent investigation might have ended the victimization of a number of survivors.
On Tuesday I will look at possible motivations of bishops to suppress incidents of clerical child abuse.