Former Pittsburgh bishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl defends himself ahead of grand jury report
HARRISBURG – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, says he expects a grand jury report being released Tuesday on the sexual abuse of children by clergy in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses to be critical of his actions as the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh.
Wuerl wrote to priests late Monday, defending himself ahead of the release of a roughly 900-page report that victim advocates call the largest and most exhaustive such review by any U.S. state.
Wuerl contended that he acted diligently to protect children while bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years through 2006.
Despite the criticism of his actions in the report, Wuerl said he hopes “a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.”
Court records in a largely secret, months-long legal fight over the report indicate it identifies more than 300 “predator priests” and that grand jurors accuse church leaders of brushing aside victims to protect abusers and church institutions.
Wuerl said he expects the grand jury’s findings from the 70 years it explored will be “profoundly disturbing and will open wounds among the faithful that many of us thought to be healing.”
The state Supreme Court set a Tuesday-afternoon deadline for a judge mediating the legal battle between state prosecutors and lawyers for some clergy members named in the forthcoming report to sort out what information to black out.
Some clergy members challenging the report say they are wrongfully accused and are fighting to challenge the allegations against them. The identities of those clergy members remain under court seal, and the state’s high court plans to consider oral arguments on their claims in September.
In the meantime, the justices ordered the release of the report with redactions that conceal the identities of the clergy members who filed legal challenges.
Wuerl is already dealing with allegations that a predecessor, disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused boys and adult seminarians.
Wuerl said last month that archdiocesan records showed no complaints about McCarrick and he proposed that a panel of U.S. bishops be convened to review allegations of sexual misconduct against other bishops. The proposal was quickly criticized by Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany, saying “bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer.”
A couple of dioceses have gotten out ahead of the report and released the names of clergy members who were accused of sexual misconduct with children. On Friday, the bishop of Pittsburgh’s diocese said a few priests named in the report are still in ministry because the diocese determined allegations against them were unsubstantiated.
The grand jury investigated the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses, which together minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics.
Grand juries previously investigated child sexual abuse in the Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses.
The bishop of Erie’s diocese wrote in a two-page letter that was to be read during Sunday services at all 97 parishes that it was “shocking to read the graphic details of exactly what occurred.”
“The most important thing I want to do at this moment is to express my sorrow to the victims of sexual abuse that occurred within the Diocese of Erie,” Bishop Lawrence Persico wrote. “As the grand jury report demonstrates, they have experienced cruel behavior by the very individuals who should have had the greatest interest in protecting them. They have suffered in darkness for a very long time.”
In Pennsylvania, criminal charges can only be brought under the statute of limitations in effect at the time of the crime.
For those alleging abuse in the 1970s, that means two years from when it happened. For others, it means two years after they turned 18. Current state law allows prosecutors to file criminal charges before the one-time child victim turns 50 and for victims to seek civil damages in court before they turn 30.