A grand jury report released August 14, 2018 revealed Church officials in six Pennsylvania dioceses engaged in an decades-long “systematic” cover-up of priestly sex abuse. 301 priests were found to have abused more than 1,000 children.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 until 2006, is mentioned by name more than 200 times in the grand jury report. Wuerl is the current archbishop of Washington, D.C., the successor of now-disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
As bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl knew about predatory priests and shuffled them to different dioceses, putting more children at risk. He wrote to the Vatican about the liability these priests posed to the Church – while keeping their actions hidden from parishioners.
“In spite of Wuerl's statements to the Vatican, the clear and present threat that [Fr.] Paone posed to children was hidden and kept secret (by Wuerl) from parishioners in three states,” the grand jurors wrote. “Wuerl's statements had been meaningless without any action.”
One Pittsburgh priest, Father George Zirwas, was reported to the diocese as having molested underage boys. Some of these complaints were filed when Wuerl was bishop.
“The Grand Jury learned that the Diocese was aware of complaints against Zirwas for sexually abusing children as early as 1987,” the report says. “Additional complaints were received between 1987 and 1995. However, Zirwas continued to function as a priest during this period and was reassigned to several parishes.”
Wuerl and diocesan bureaucrats knew about complaints against Fr. Zirwas but let him continue in active ministry, putting more boys at risk for homosexual molestation.
The grand jury ultimately found that Zirwas had been involved in manufacturing child porn based on religious imagery on Church property. He was part of a group of priests who “used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.”
The diocese had Zirwas “evaluated” by a hospital in 1988 but he “continued in ministry” after being released, the grand jurors found.
After bouncing to a few other Pittsburgh parishes, Fr. Zirwas met in July 1995 with then-Father David Zubik – who later succeeded Wuerl as bishop of Pittsburgh – and “threatened to pursue legal action against other Diocesan personnel for ‘raising the consciousness of some of the people at St. Joseph Parish concerning his relationship to the public scandals which surfaced in 1988.’”
“Within days, Zirwas was returned to ministry by Bishop Donald Wuerl,” the grand jury learned.
Zubik was already aware of complaints against Zirwas, having been told about molestation he committed during a meeting with a victim and two other priests in June 1991.
In November 1995, the diocese received yet another complaint about Zirwas, and he was placed on a leave of absence for “personal reasons.”
He remained on that leave of absence for the rest of his life. His involvement with the diocese wasn’t over, though.
Although he moved to Florida (and later Cuba, where he was murdered), in 1996, Zirwas told the Diocese of Pittsburgh he knew about illegal sexual activity being committed by other Pittsburgh priests. In exchange for this information, he wanted the money he was receiving from the Church to be increased.
Wuerl responded saying Zirwas was to either send him the names of these predator priests, or state the exact opposite of what Zirwas had just claimed – that he knew nothing about pedophile priests in the diocese.
Zirwas opted to recant his claim, and the amount of money he received monthly increased.
The grand jury report explains:
“Zirwas informed the Diocese [in 1996] that he had knowledge of other Pittsburgh Diocese priests' involvement in illegal sexual activity. In exchange for this information, he demanded that his sustenance payments be increased.
In response to this request, Wuerl instructed him to document in writing the names of the priests involved, or, state that he had no knowledge of what he had previously claimed. Wuerl advised that this action had to be undertaken before Zirwas could receive any additional assistance. After Zirwas disavowed any knowledge of priest involvement in illegal sexual activity in a letter to the Diocese, he was granted an additional financial stipend and his sustenance payments were continued.”