Thirty years ago, after Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh visited a family whose sons had been sexually abused by three Catholic priests, he resolved to do everything possible to keep such abuse from happening again.
He was so determined to stop abusers that in 1993, after the Vatican’s highest court ordered him to return a credibly accused priest to ministry, he fought and won a two-year canonical court battle for the right to remove offenders. Since 2007, Bishop David Zubik has added to that legacy, continually strengthening diocesan policies and practices against child sexual abuse.
When Bishop Wuerl met with victims in 1988, his priest-secretary, then-Father David Zubik, accompanied him to the home.
“You can’t be part of a meeting like that without realizing the horrific pain and damage that abuse causes,” Bishop Zubik recalled. “To experience the betrayal that they felt from representatives of the church, from individuals they had trusted their kids with — you can’t describe it.”
Soon afterward, Bishop Wuerl called a meeting to tell all his priests that no one who had sexual contact with a minor could expect to return to ministry.
The most vivid memory of Father Lawrence DiNardo, his chief canonical adviser who is now general secretary of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, was “that the silence of the priests cannot be tolerated,” he said. “Bishop Wuerl’s point of view was that you need to understand that it’s not in the interest of the church or the interest of the priesthood to be silent. If you know something, you need to tell us.”
In 1989, Bishop Wuerl created what is now the Independent Review Board, a panel of experts in fields pertinent to child sexual abuse, including the parents of victims. The board continues to advise the bishop concerning the credibility of allegations and the suitability of clergy for ministry. In 1993, the diocese hired a professional social worker to assist victims and to follow up on offenders. Also in 1993, the diocese publicly released its policy for responding to allegations of sexual abuse.
In that era, bishops had little support from Rome for removing abusive priests, according to an analysis that Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law, presented in his book, “Before Dallas.” The 1983 Code of Canon Law protected priests from arbitrary decisions of bishops, but did little to protect the faithful from dangerous clergy. In a canonical “catch 22,” bishops tried to remove perpetrators on grounds of mental illness, but the code forbade penalizing a priest for mental illness.
Pittsburgh’s 1993 policy prescribed permanent removal from ministry for sexual abuse of a minor. But, knowing that Rome might overrule him, Bishop Wuerl created a possibility that an offender who had been treated and approved for ministry by psychiatrists, and who lived under close supervision, could serve in a post that required no contact with minors.
“When decisions had to be made, we were breaking new ground,” Father DiNardo said. “How do you restrict a person’s faculties when you don’t have the penalties canonically? Everything related to … the sexual abuse scandal has to be contextualized in the time and place they occurred. From hindsight, there are things we do that are easier now because of the changes in the rules. But at the time it happened it wasn’t so easy.”
Bishop Wuerl’s response to allegations against Father Anthony Cipolla began to change Rome’s response.
In November 1988, a 19-year-old former seminarian sued, saying that Father Cipolla had molested him from the age of 12. Cipolla was immediately removed from ministry and never returned, but appealed his removal to the Vatican. Meanwhile, the victim’s attorney located a detailed police report from 1978, when Cipolla was arrested for molesting a 9-year-old. The mother withdrew the complaint and no charges were filed, but the report included many facts that supported the child’s account and enabled Bishop Wuerl to fight in Rome for Cipolla’s removal in Rome.
In 1993, the Vatican’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, ordered Bishop Wuerl to return Father Cipolla to ministry. It said that Bishop Wuerl should not have used the canon on mental illness to remove Father Cipolla because it was only for severe psychosis. Bishop Wuerl then took the almost unheard-of step of petitioning the court to rehear the case.
In October 1995, the Signatura reversed itself and ruled that Bishop Wuerl had been right to remove Cipolla from ministry. It allowed the removal of any priest whose mental illness posed a danger to the faithful. That made it easier for all bishops to remove bad priests, though it could still be difficult if he had no diagnosis or the offense was something other than sexual penetration.
In 2002, when the Boston sexual abuse scandal broke, Bishop Wuerl championed major reform that would allow bishops to remove any priest who had sexually abused a minor, whether or not the priest was mentally ill and whether or not he admitted the abuse.
That June, the U.S. bishops met in Dallas to draft their “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Bishop Wuerl led a floor fight to ensure that no priest who was found to have sexually abused a minor could continue in ministry. He advocated reporting, saying that bishops must, at a minimum, immediately tell civil authorities about any allegation in which the alleged victim was still a minor. The Diocese of Pittsburgh had done so for many years, and had recently expanded reporting to cases in which the victims were now adults.
After Bishop Zubik was appointed to the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007, he continued to strengthen the policies and practices in Pittsburgh. He consolidated child protection efforts — including background checks and training to identify and report abuse — in a new Office for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The child protection practices of the diocese have met or exceeded state law. Bishop Zubik ensured that they would continue to do so, requiring more church workers than the law mandates to receive training and certification as mandatory reporters of child abuse. In 2015, after the state required fingerprinting of employees and volunteers who work with children, Bishop Zubik purchased of a mobile fingerprinting unit to take to parishes and schools. Use of that mobile unit had to be discontinued when the commonwealth of Pennsylvania changed vendors, but fingerprinting continues at state-approved sites.
Bishop Zubik also developed a consistent practice of announcing to parishes and the public when a priest or deacon is removed due to a credible allegation of child sexual abuse.
“Our history of action to stop and prevent child sexual abuse is strong and well-documented,” Bishop Zubik said. “My promise is that it will continue long into the future.”