Past U.S. Attorney disputes charge against diocese

Friday, September 21, 2018 - Updated: 11:04 am

By Ann Rodgers General Manager

A longtime member of the Independent Review Board that assesses allegations of child sexual abuse for the Diocese of Pittsburgh held one of the nation’s top law enforcement positions overseeing the prosecution of criminal conspiracies — and he sees no evidence for the grand jury report’s allegations that the diocese has an ongoing pattern of protecting offenders.

The grand jury report “focuses on what happened decades ago rather than in changes of practice that I have seen and been involved in over two decades,” said Frederick Thieman, former U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, who has served on the Independent Review Board for 20 years.

The recent statewide grand jury report on how six Pennsylvania dioceses responded to allegations of child sexual abuse over 70 years made sweeping assertions that all the dioceses had an ongoing pattern of covering up abuse and protecting offenders.

While a full accounting of child sexual abuse “is a story that needs to be told,” he said, Pennsylvania’s use of grand juries that publicly disseminate accusations, but bring no indictments, can be problematic. Unlike a trial, there is no opportunity for cross-examination and very limited opportunity for those accused to challenge evidence or present evidence of their own.

“I question the wisdom of the entire process in constitutional terms,” Thieman said. “I don’t think the grand jury report provides ample basis for anyone to draw conclusions from older evidence and state them as current fact until the evidence has been examined and tested.”

Of the 15 cases he was personally involved in since 1997, in all but one or two the evidence was deemed credible and the priests were permanently removed from ministry, he said.

The diocese continually sought to improve its response to allegations of child sexual abuse, Thieman said.

“There may have been mistakes made,” he said of the accounts in the grand jury report. “Bishop Wuerl was on a learning curve. Early on some things were done differently than they were later. But the more Bishop Wuerl, and later Bishop Zubik, learned, the more they tried to change things. In everything I saw over 20 years, they were working to shed light on the matter, to be transparent and to learn how to be better at what they did.”

Thieman, a Downtown Pittsburgh resident, had an illustrious legal career before joining the nonprofit sector. He currently holds the Henry Buhl Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership at the Buhl Foundation. He is former president of that foundation, one of western Pennsylvania’s major philanthropic organizations.

His specialty — as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney — was in the trials of complex business, conspiracy and fraud-related matters. Philadelphia Magazine listed him among the top 100 “Super Lawyers” in Pennsylvania. The professional respect in which he was held by his peers is reflected in his membership in the American College of Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only group of the nation’s top litigators.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed him the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania. While in that office, he helped to launch a major Pittsburgh initiative to prevent youth crime. Then-Bishop Donald Wuerl was active in that effort, and the two got to know each other.

But Thieman was surprised in 1997 when Bishop Wuerl invited him to serve on the Independent Review Board that evaluates allegations and advises the bishop on whether a priest is suitable for ministry. Bishop Wuerl knew that Thieman had left the Catholic Church for the Anglican tradition.

“I was not questioned about why I left the Catholic Church. I was not questioned about what my feelings were about the Catholic Church. I was simply asked to bring my concern for children and my sense of fairness and evidence to the process,” he said.

The board, which Bishop Wuerl created in 1989, includes professionals in fields pertinent to child sexual abuse, as well as parents of victims. Their review doesn’t replace a law enforcement investigation, but has a different purpose.

Law enforcement decides whether a crime has been committed, while the review board evaluates whether the priest is suitable for ministry. If criminal charges are filed, the review board process waits until the police and courts have finished their work. The review board is able to act on offending priests in cases where no criminal charges are filed. By the time any case reaches the review board, the diocese has already reported it to law enforcement.

Diocesan officials “sent cases to us if there was even a semblance of credibility, rather than sending only the worst cases. They seemed to do their best to investigate the cases, and they treated the victims very sensitively,” Thieman said.

The board must answer two questions. The first is whether the allegation has a “semblance of truth.” If the answer is yes, then the board must decide whether the conduct meets the definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” in the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” If the answer is yes, the matter goes to the bishop as a recommendation to permanently remove the cleric from ministry.

Bishop Wuerl and Bishop Zubik have always followed that recommendation, Thieman said.

Even in the second decade of the 21st century, he said, nearly all of the allegations that come before the board concern actions that occurred before 1990.

The review board hears testimony, reviews evidence and can question the accused priest, the accuser and witnesses for both sides. Unlike a criminal courtroom, however, the victim and accused cleric are not in the same room at the same time.

“The priest would not be present when the victim testified, so that it would not be uncomfortable for the victim,” Thieman said.

“It was personally embarrassing for a lot of these victims to share these very personal feelings and events.”

The hearings “were sad, sometimes tragic, and very troubling.”

The board members strove to be fair to everyone.

“We did not want it to be a kangaroo court for the priest,” he said.

“The priests had dedicated a lifetime to ministry and almost always denied the accusations. You don’t want to give short shrift to a life of possible ministry simply because there is an accusation. So we struggled to make sure we believed that there was credibility to the allegation. In the vast majority of cases we did find that there was credibility.”

Although the board reached a unanimous recommendation in every case he served on, that followed long deliberation.

“The cases were extremely difficult in the sense that there were oftentimes complicated factual situations,” Thieman said. “Cases were often many years old and people’s memories were understandably not as precise as they might have been.”

“The effort was made to get to the truth and not be a court of law. So the standards for evidence that we applied were relatively loose, and most of the evidence was presented. Evidence that would not have been permitted or may not have been permitted in a court of law was permitted into the review.”

For instance, the review board heard hearsay testimony, and even hearsay on hearsay.

Because of that difference in evidentiary standards and in the standard for proof, even if they had not been barred by the statute of limitations, “I doubt a lot of cases would have made it into the courtroom. Certainly not a criminal court. Quite likely not even a civil court,” he said.

A criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while a civil verdict requires “a preponderance of the evidence” to weigh against an accused person.

“We applied a ‘semblance of truth’ standard. So that is much lower than even a preponderance of the evidence,” Thieman said.

Diocesan officials did not try to steer the outcome, he said.

“We were never influenced in any way as to what our decision should be,” Thieman said. “Decisions were made on evidence, one step at a time.”

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