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DAs want to consult with Wuerl

| Thursday, April 25, 2002

Local and federal prosecutors want to meet as a group with Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to explain how allegations of sexual abuse by priests should be reported to authorities.

"It's just so that we're all on the same page, so they know what their responsibilities are and what our responsibilities are," said Butler County District Attorney Timothy McCune, who asked the diocese for the meeting and has contacted fellow district attorneys in the five other counties that make up the diocese. "It's going to be soon."

Wuerl said last month that he removed "several" priests who faced credible allegations of abuse that were decades old. Wuerl has refused to say how many priests have been disciplined.

District attorneys in southwestern Pennsylvania have corresponded individually with diocesan officials to discuss how allegations of child molestation are reported.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. met with Wuerl last week. McCune's proposed meeting would bring together all six district attorneys and Wuerl. The diocese includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington counties.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan also said she would be interested in participating.

"Primarily, these allegations would be state matters," Buchanan said. "We would only be involved if there was photographing, videotaping or transporting of a child across state lines."

Beaver County District Attorney Dale Fouse said yesterday that he also is interested in knowing if and how past allegations have been reported.

"Any and all allegations," he said. "I'm not limiting it to just fresh ones."

McCune first approached diocesan legal counsel William A. Steidle Jr. about the meeting. Steidle yesterday referred questions to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

"There was a proposal that was made to meet with the district attorneys from the six counties. It is our intention to be in touch with them to discuss the best way for that to happen," Lengwin said. "It is our intention, certainly, to seek out the assistance of the district attorneys so we will have the same information we received from District Attorney Zappala about who on their staff should be contacted to assist anyone who comes to us with an allegation."

In the meantime, Lawrence County District Attorney Matthew Mangino said he plans to meet today with Steidle.

"It's just going to be a meeting to try to figure out where everybody stands on these issues," Mangino said. "We had corresponded with the diocese. We asked for an opportunity to discuss any specific cases that might relate to Lawrence County. That might be part of our discussion (today)."

The meetings with diocesan officials have been spawned by reports that church leaders in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had failed over the years to report accusations of sexual abuse by numerous priests to law-enforcement officials and that church leaders, instead, had handled such cases solely by transferring accused priests from parish to parish The sex scandal prompted other dioceses in the United States to review past sexual-abuse allegations and to suspend priests who had been accused of molesting children.

Zappala has not asked the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh for files containing past allegations against priests, said his spokesman, Mike Manko.

McCune said the diocese knows that it is mandated under state law to report suspected child abuse.

"If there were allegations, they would have been reported," McCune said. "I don't have any evidence it was handled inappropriately."

Mangino said he would like to know more about the nature of the allegations that led to Wuerl's dismissals last month.

"That information isn't clear on our end either," he said. "I would be interested in knowing that information as it relates to residents in Lawrence County."

At least 23 priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children have been removed from assignments in Pennsylvania dioceses since Jan. 1, according to The Associated Press.

Seven priests have been removed from Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia; six priests have been suspended or resigned in the Catholic Diocese of Allentown; one priest in the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg; three in the Catholic Diocese of Scranton; three in the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg; and three in the Catholic Diocese of Erie. Only the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has not removed any priests or has reviewed its records.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham announced yesterday that she will convene a grand jury to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by priests and the response of church officials. She said she hopes to determine what crimes, if any, occurred; whether the relevant statute of limitations have expired; and whether anyone should be prosecuted.

"I am the only person empowered to make (these decisions), as the prosecutor," Abraham said.

Also in Philadelphia yesterday, priests observed a "Day of Atonement" for the Roman Catholic Church to pray for the victims of child sexual abuse. The day was instructed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who is meeting with other cardinals and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and who formerly headed the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Mangino said it is "premature" to discuss whether a grand jury should be convened in any of the counties that make up the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh; however, Fouse, the Beaver County district attorney, said he wouldn't rule out the possibility.

"I'd want to talk to my fellow district attorneys who are within the diocese as to what they have to say before I make a decision," Fouse said.

Fouse, Mangino and Greene County District Attorney Marge Fox said they support a group meeting with Wuerl. Washington County District Attorney John Pettit did not return phone messages yesterday.

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