Then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl helped convince the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests who had sexually abused minors, which meant that they were no longer allowed to serve in ministry as priests. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC)
Then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl helped convince the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests who had sexually abused minors, which meant that they were no longer allowed to serve in ministry as priests. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC)

One day after Cardinal Donald Wuerl celebrated an Aug. 26 Mass of Healing at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing clergy sexual abuse in six counties in that state over the past seven decades, Msgr. Charles Antonicelli – the Archdiocese of Washington’s Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia – sent a letter to archdiocesan staff emphasizing the cardinal’s message at the Mass that “all must know the Church’s contrition and remorse for these grave sins. Survivors of this great betrayal by priests must know of the prayers of the Church for healing and our steadfast commitment to protect all of those entrusted to our care.”

Msgr. Antonicelli added, “That said, the report is also flawed.” He noted that those named in the report did not have the opportunity to counter the claims in the report, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has raised concerns about the process and will hear oral arguments about those issues in September.

In the letter, the priest also sought to clarify the child protection record of then-Bishop Wuerl, who led the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1988 until being named archbishop of Washington in 2006. The report strongly criticized then-Bishop Wuerl’s actions in some of the abuse cases, and since the report was issued, the cardinal has faced a firestorm of criticism, including calls for his resignation. As required by Church law, Cardinal Wuerl submitted his resignation to Pope Francis when he turned 75 in November 2015, and the pope has not accepted his resignation.

The vicar general’s letter included links to background documents that he said provided “facts on Cardinal Wuerl’s record during his tenure in Pittsburgh that were either mischaracterized or simply not included in the report.”

Summarizing then-Bishop Wuerl’s record in confronting clergy sexual abuse in Pittsburgh, Msgr. Antonicelli noted that the bishop dealt with allegations against 32 priests with claims of child sexual abuse against them, and 18 priests were removed from ministry, 13 priests were either dead or removed from ministry when Bishop Wuerl arrived there in 1988, and one priest had a nonphysical claim against him that was anonymous and found not to be credible.

“There was never a policy or process to transfer priests with claims against them, and Cardinal Wuerl denied numerous requests by priests withdrawn from ministry to return,” Msgr. Antonicelli said.

The priest added, “In the end, while there may be individual cases that might have been evaluated differently today, Cardinal Wuerl did his best to do the right thing and always worked to ensure children were never harmed. The facts confirm that he removed priests from ministry upon claims of abuse, was a leader in child protection and took significant steps to assist survivors.”

The background information that was linked to in Msgr. Antonicelli’s letter included a fact sheet titled, “What the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report Mischaracterized and Omitted about Cardinal Wuerl’s Record as Bishop of Pittsburgh.”

That backgrounder notes that in the Diocese of Pittsburgh during then-Bishop Wuerl’s leadership there, “Every priest with a credible and substantiated accusation was removed from ministry.”

Refuting the grand jury report’s claim that then-Bishop Wuerl “concealed information” on child sex abuse claims against priests, the backgrounder noted that the report cited a priest “sex ring” to prove that claim but failed to report that:

• “In 1987 all three priests charged in this abhorrent case were out of ministry and criminally investigated – a year before Bishop Wuerl came to Pittsburgh.”

• “Two were convicted and sent to prison.”

•  “Cardinal Wuerl never allowed the three to return to public ministry.”

•  “The local Pittsburgh press covered it extensively, and it was a matter of public record.”

Msgr. Antonicelli’s letter also included a link to a timeline detailing Cardinal Wuerl’s child protection efforts in Pittsburgh, which noted that in 1988, the year he was installed as bishop there, he met with the family of victims of an abusive priest. The timeline noted, “That meeting persuaded Bishop Wuerl that reassigning pedophile priests is not acceptable, and that priests facing substantiated allegations of child abuse must be withdrawn from ministry.”

That same month, the Diocese of Pittsburgh held a mandatory meeting for all diocesan priests to advise them of the diocese’s Policy on Clergy Sexual Misconduct. Then one month later in Pittsburgh, Bishop Wuerl established the first Diocesan Review Board on child protection issues in the United States, which according to the timeline was founded “to evaluate allegations, make recommendations, and provide advice on offering healing and assistance to survivors.”

Early in 1989, Bishop Wuerl traveled to Rome and successfully defended his decision to remove Father Anthony Cipolla from ministry after a credible claim was made against him, and the bishop eventually won a reversal of a Vatican decision to restore him to ministry.

The timeline also notes that in 1993, Bishop Wuerl hired a Diocesan Assistance Coordinator to provide services to survivors, and in 2002, the bishop was “a leader in the floor debate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (meeting) in Dallas pressing for a strong, nationwide policy prohibiting a credibly accused individual from returning to ministry.”

In an Aug. 14 statement after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued, Cardinal Wuerl said, “As I have made clear throughout my more than 30 years as a bishop, the sexual abuse of children by some members of the Catholic Church is a terrible tragedy, and the Church can never express enough our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely. While I understand this report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse. I sincerely hope that 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.”