An explanation of issues in grand jury report

Friday, August 24, 2018 - Updated: 8:59 am

By Ann Rodgers General Manager

The grand jury report on the Diocese of Pittsburgh contains many appalling, true accounts of sexual abuse that children and adolescents suffered at the hands of priests.

But it does not reflect the diocese today. At least 90 percent of all reported abuse in the Diocese of Pittsburgh occurred before 1990, although many victims didn’t come forward until after 2002.

The sharp drop in abuse here is due to 30 years of reforms that the Diocese of Pittsburgh began shortly after then-Bishop Donald Wuerl was installed in 1988. Information on those reforms and their impact was not included in the grand jury report. Some other evidence from our files was misinterpreted. The official, legal response of the Diocese of Pittsburgh is on the diocesan website at https://www.diopitt.org/car-press.

Here are some major points:

Circle of secrecy

The phrase “circle of secrecy” was jotted in the margin of a 1993 letter from Father Joseph Karabin, to then-Bishop Donald Wuerl, in which the priest — who had been in non-parish ministry since 1986 — asked for a parish assignment. The grand jury report states that then-Bishop Donald Wuerl wrote “circle of secrecy,” and describes this “circle” as an effort to cover up abuse. That is incorrect. Bishop Wuerl did not write “circle of secrecy.” The diocesan official who did write it meant that the priest must break his “circle of secrecy” and reveal his history of misconduct to anyone he worked with. Karabin was never returned to parish ministry and was permanently removed from a restricted assignment at a hospital in 2002.

However, the grand jury report elaborates on its interpretation of “circle of secrecy,” outlining a pattern of action that does not describe the practices of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Reporting to law enforcement

Since at least the late 1980s, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has complied with Pennsylvania law by reporting allegations where the victim is currently a minor when law enforcement was not already aware of them. However, most people who bring allegations to the diocese are adults, reporting abuse from many years earlier. Since at least 1993, the policy of the diocese has been to encourage them to report it to law enforcement. In 2002 we began reporting everything that appeared it could be credible, regardless of the age of the victim. In 2007 we began reporting everything regardless of age, credibility or whether we had full names of the accuser or perpetrator.

Internal assessment

In 1989, the Diocese of Pittsburgh created an Independent Review Board to assess allegations and to advise the bishop on their credibility and the suitability of an accused priest for ministry. Its members have included a former United States attorney, other lawyers and prosecutors, a clinical psychologist and several parents whose children were sexually abused by priests. In 1993, the Diocese of Pittsburgh became the first in the nation to employ a victim assistance coordinator, a masters-level, licensed social worker, who still holds that post today. She is compassionate and caring, as reflected in the case files quoted in the grand jury report. “She has spoken with every victim who has come forward since 1993,” according to the formal response filed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Informing parishioners

“Consistently since 2004, if an allegation is levied against a clergy member who is assigned to a parish, the parishioners are informed that the priest has been removed pending further investigation of the allegation,” the diocesan response said. Prior to that, similar actions were taken in many cases at least as far back as 1988. “Our regular practice has included letters read from the pulpit and placed in the bulletins of affected parishes, pastoral visits, press releases, articles in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, notification to all clergy by fax or e-mail and notification to the appropriate dIstrict attorney and child protective services,” the response said.

Treatment facilities for priests

The Diocese of Pittsburgh utilizes accredited, licensed psychiatric facilities and sends them extensive information about the priest and the allegation. A professional team does in-depth interviews and standard testing recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

Financial support for offenders

Canon law requires a modest level of financial support to cover the basic needs of any priest who has been removed from ministry against his will and who has not been laicized, if he cannot support himself. These payments are typically less than half a regular salary.

Secret archives

The diocese does not keep records of child sexual abuse in a “secret archive.” Since 1993, all of our records of clergy misconduct, including child sexual abuse, have been kept in confidential files in the clergy office where they can be readily accessed by those who need to review them. This is consistent with the best practices of the human resources departments of most organizations. The diocese’s “secret archive” contains the bishop’s last will and testament and a succession plan should he become incapacitated.


Euphemisms that minimize misconduct

The detailed descriptions of child sexual abuse in the Grand Jury report come directly from the highly graphic files of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Terminology for the status of a priest who has been removed from ministry due to misconduct has changed over the past 30 years due to changes in Church law and pursuit of best practices. But whether such a priest is on personal leave, administrative leave, withdrawn from ministry or has been laicized, the effect is the same. He cannot conduct ministry, dress as a priest or otherwise present himself as a priest in good standing.

The grand jury report also highlighted three cases that it says show a pattern of failure. While two of these cases would be handled very differently today, they reflect the difficulties of trying to remove a priest from ministry against his will in an era before Church law had provisions to help bishops do so.


Ernest Paone

Father Paone was accused of sexually abusing minors in 1962 and 1964. Back then, the diocese did not respond as it would in this century. In 1966, Father Paone was granted an indefinite leave of absence and went to live with his brother in California. At some point most of his files were removed from the cabinet where those of active priests were stored. In 1991, when the bishop of the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas asked if Bishop Wuerl would approve Father Paone to help out in a Nevada parish, no one on the diocesan staff remembered Paone or knew of the report of sexual abuse. The request was approved because the bishop was not aware of the allegations from nearly 30 years earlier.

In 1994, while diocesan officials were conducting an open meeting at a parish about another priest who had sexually abused children, a woman said that Father Paone had abused her brother in the early 1960s. Paone’s records were located and placed in a confidential file in the clergy office, where they could be referenced. A psychiatric examination concluded that he showed no sign of attraction to minors. He was allowed to keep his faculties to celebrate sacraments — a decision that would not be made today. But after the 1994 report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh sent information about the alleged abuse and his diagnosis to all dioceses where he served or sought to serve. There was no effort to keep his past a secret. In 2002, the diocese removed Paone’s faculties.

George Zirwas

Law enforcement investigated the allegations against Zirwas in 1988, but he was not charged with a crime. In 1991 another discussion occurred with an accuser, by then an adult,who did not want to press charges. By then, Bishop Wuerl was fighting the Vatican courts for the right to remove a priest against his will in a case that had better evidence against the priest. The Diocese of Pittsburgh won that case in 1995, and Zirwas was permanently removed from ministry several months later.

The official response of the Diocese of Pittsburgh addressed a victim named George, who testified to the Grand Jury, but who had never reported it to the diocese.

“We sincerely apologize to George and extend an offer to him to meet with us. We invite anyone who has yet to come forward to contact us and tell us their story,” the response said.

Richard Zula

The diocese received the first complaint about Father Zula in 1987, immediately removed him from ministry and never reinstated him. This was easier to do than in some other cases because he admitted the abuse. At no time did the diocese request a lighter sentence for Zula, nor did it ask his therapist to submit a psychiatric report on his behalf to the court, as alleged in the grand jury report. The diocese denied all of Zula’s requests to return to ministry. It also rejected his requests for exorbitant sums of money above the modest stipend that canon law required in order to cover his basic needs.

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