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Wilkinsburg parish told of alleged abuse by former assistant pastor

| Monday, April 8, 2013, 11:55 p.m.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh waited six months after it received the first allegation of child sexual abuse involving one of its priests before notifying parishioners.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said it sent a letter on Friday to parishioners of St. James Church in Wilkinsburg because it received an allegation of sexual abuse involving the late Rev. John Wellinger, parochial vicar of the church, from the brother of the late victim on March 25. Lengwin said the diocese first received an allegation from the victim's sister in September.

“What changed is we had another person coming forth with an allegation — a brother and a sister,” Lengwin said.

Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, confirmed the office received the information on Wellinger in September. He said it would be inappropriate for the office to comment on how the diocese communicated with its parishioners.

Wellinger served as parochial vicar, or assistant pastor, of St. James between 1981 and 1985.

The Rev. Warren Metzler, the pastor there, said he was not aware of any reports that Wellinger was involved in sexual abuse in his parish until after Wellinger's death in April 2011. He said he did not know that Wellinger was part of a $1.25 million settlement, involving 32 victims, that the diocese announced in 2007. Lengwin said the latest accusation about Wellinger is unrelated to the one from the settlement.

“I must be terribly naive,” Metzler said, noting that he was caught by surprise when the first cases of clergy abuse in the Pittsburgh diocese surfaced in 1988.

“They were dramatic and terrible, and all of us priests were stunned,” Metzler said.

Lengwin said that Wellinger also served at St. Wendelin's in Carrick, St. Athanasius in West View, St. Clare in Clairton, Our Lady of Grace in Scott, Holy Spirit in West Mifflin, St. Francis de Sales in McKees Rocks and St. George in Allentown.

Lengwin said Wellinger's frequent stops had nothing to do with any abuse allegation. He said the diocese first learned of an accusation involving Wellinger in September 1995. He was placed on a leave of absence for health reasons in June 2005 and never served in the ministry again.

This marks the third letter the diocese sent to alumni or parishes involving clergy. The two others involved Kenneth Ghastin, a Franciscan brother, and the Rev. Michael Ledoux, a Franciscan friar. Both cases stem from accusations made while the two held jobs out of state.

Asked why the diocese did not send the letter to the other parishes where Wellinger served, Lengwin responded, “If we find there's more going on here, we may send letters to other places.” Lengwin said the diocese began the policy in 2004 of sending letters to parishes and alumni of schools where an accused priest served. Since then, letters have gone out in about 10 cases.

He said one person accepted an offer of counseling as a result of the letter. The offer is on the diocese's website.

Lengwin said the diocese chose to be audited annually on its handling of the cases by the Independent Board of Review, made up mostly of former FBI agents, until last year, when it opted not to in a cost-cutting measure. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of procedures for dealing with the issue established by American bishops in 2002, recommends audits every three years.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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