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Valley News Dispatch

Catholic faithful say the church has moved beyond the days of 'predator priests'

| Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, 8:39 p.m.
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Parishioners attend a 7pm Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Natrona Heights on Aug. 15, 2018.
St. Scholastica Church in Aspinwall.
St. Scholastica Church in Aspinwall.

The specter of a predator priest who once served in Harrison was largely overlooked by parishioners on their way to Mass on Wednesday night.

Some members of Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish said they knew of the Rev. Richard Zula as a predator priest who eventually was convicted. They also said priests today are unlike the predators named in a state grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church released Tuesday.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians celebrate Aug. 15 as the day when the Virgin Mary, according to tradition, was assumed bodily into heaven upon her death.

The holy day of obligation fell a day after the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury issued an explosive report naming 301 “predator priests,” including 20 from the Greensburg diocese and 99 from the Pittsburgh diocese.

Most of the priests are dead or have been removed from ministry.

The report listed Zula, the Rev. George Zirwas and two others as a “group of priests” who used “whips, violence and sadism” on victims.

Zula served at Most Blessed Sacrament from June 1971 to December 1973 and at Tarentum’s St. Clement’s from 1986 to 1987.

Zula resigned from the Tarentum church, and the diocese settled a lawsuit with the victim and his brother.

Zula pleaded guilty to two sex abuse charges and was sentenced to up to five years in prison. He died in 2017.

Many of Most Blessed Sacrament’s members said they didn’t know Zula or didn’t want to comment.

“I just want to pray,” one woman said.

One man summed up many of the opinions as “We’re in shock. Hurting. We need to process this.”

Tara Thieke of Natrona Heights and her friends across the country were wearing black to Mass to send a message, she said.

“I am disappointed the diocese was forced to do this and didn’t come forward in 2002,” she said.

She said other victims will likely talk with prosecutors later. “It takes a while for them to come forward,” she said.

Marsha Etzrodt of Natrona Heights knew that one of the predator priests had been a priest at the parish, but she didn’t know him. “These current priests are wonderful,” she said.”The church will survive.”

Barbara Simpson of Cheswick said priests are nothing like the men named in the grand jury report. “You can’t tar all the priests with the same brush. Doctors, teachers, all professions have bad apples,” she said.

Sue Karaica of Fawn said “We are all human and all are sinners.” Her sister, Mary Wasilowski of the Natrona section of Harrison, agreed. “We are all human,” she said.

Mary Skyzinski of Lower Burrell said it is a sad day for the church. “Certainly, I feel for the victims,” she said. “I trust in Bishop (David) Zubik completely and in the Catholic Church. We have great priests in this church and in this diocese,” she said.

The grand jury report said Zirwas, who served at St. Scholastica in Aspinwall from 1991 until 1994, and other priests asked a boy to stand on a bed and remove his clothes as they discussed the image of Christ on the cross. Then they photographed the boy and added his photo to a collection of other teenage boys, according to the report.

One parishioner at the church said after Wednesday morning Mass at St. Scholastica that she remembered Zirwas as an “odd” man who kept an apartment in Shadyside. The parishioner, who didn’t want to be identified by name, said a more senior priest allowed Zirwas to offer Mass but didn’t allow him to make house calls.

Another parishioner who didn’t want to be named said it is “terrible that it happened,” referring to sexual abuse in general at the church. “It’s just devastating that grown adults would act like that, whether they’re priests or not.”

Parishioner Janet Hribar, 70, of O’Hara said she is convinced that psychological counseling for priests, background checks and prayer have ended the problems in the church.

“I’m absolutely certain that this is over,” Hribar said.

Hribar said there was no mention of the report at the morning Mass but that the church had set copies of a letter from Zubik near the church’s entrance.

“There is no priest or deacon in ministry today against whom there has been a substantiated allegation of child sexual abuse,” Zubik’s letter said. It outlined preventive steps, including engaging an expert to review the diocese’s policies and practices related to child protection and hiring someone to monitor clergy who have been removed from ministry following abuse allegations.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, cbiedka@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka. Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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