Several of the cases inherited from Cardinal Bevilacqua’s time were subjects of the report’s most stringent criticisms.
In one case, an abuser-priest left the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1966, following allegations of abuse. He was allowed to seek ministry in dioceses in California and Nevada. The report says Wuerl authorized him to move from Los Angeles to the diocese of Reno-Las Vegas in 1991, but sources familiar with the Pittsburgh case said that Wuerl was unaware of the 1966 allegations at the time.
A further allegation, concerning past actions by the same priest, was made in 1994 at which time Wuerl immediately informed the dioceses where the priest had been living.
In another case highlighted by the report, Wuerl agreed to a settlement with an abuse victim in his first weeks as bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988. The victim received a total of $900,000 and signed a confidentiality agreement - such agreements were once common in settlements and have been heavily criticized as a means of silencing victims.
While acknowledging that the report contained specific criticisms of his time in Pittsburgh, Wuerl defended his record of handling sexual abuse allegations.
“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.”
The report also specifically criticized Wuerl for maintaining financial support for priests who had been removed from ministry, although providing that support is a canonical obligation for bishops. Many dioceses, including those covered by the report, have found themselves obligated to continue providing minimum benefits and support for priests.
Sources close to the cardinal also point out that the grand jury report does not distinguish between proven incidents of abuse and other allegations, saying that the report presumes that any priest accused of abuse should have been permanently removed from ministry, whether the allegation is proven or not. That assumption, they say, is not consistent with canonical norms on the subject.
As the most senior sitting bishop to be named in the report, and having served for so long as the head of a diocese as prominent as Pittsburgh, it was widely expected that Wuerl would be singled out for special attention by the report, and by the state’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro.
Perhaps the most eye-catching allegation against Wuerl contained in the more than 1,000 pages released is the use of the phrase “circle of secrecy.” These words, the report claims, “were his own words for the church’s child sex abuse cover up.” This allegation is vehemently denied by both the diocese of Pittsburgh and the cardinal.
In an official response released with the report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh said that the phrase “circle of secrecy” appears in paperwork related to the request of a particular priest to return to ministry, and that it was used to make clear that there could be no “circle of secrecy” about the priest’s past problems. The diocese also says that the handwriting in which the phrase is written cannot be definitively attributed to anyone, including Wuerl.
Ed McFadden, spokesman for the cardinal, said that “the handwriting does not belong to then-Bishop Wuerl as the writers of the Report mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the cardinal confirmed the handwriting is not his, and confirmed he neither wrote nor used the phrase while serving as Bishop of Pittsburgh. When the Cardinal’s legal counsel informed the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office about this error – prior to the release of the report – the Attorney General and his Senior Deputy refused to acknowledge the mistake and refused to take any steps to correct the dramatic use and misattribution of the phrase in the report.”
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McFadden called the report’s attribution of the phrase “another example that in factual ways, large and small, the Attorney General’s office was more concerned with getting this report out than getting it right. Such a focus detracts from the shared goals of protection and healing.”
In a letter sent to the priests of the Washington archdiocese on Aug. 13, Wuerl wrote that he was shocked at having to confront allegations of abuse almost from the beginning of his ministry in Pittsburgh.
“I cannot fully express the dismay and anger I felt, when as a newly installed Bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988, I learned about the abuse some survivors experienced in my diocese,” he said.
The cardinal said that the experience of meeting with victims of abuse “urged me to develop quickly a “zero tolerance” policy for clergy who committed such abuse,” and that he put in place procedures to ensure allegations were addressed “fairly and forthrightly.”
In his written testimony to the grand jury, Wuerl recounted that in his first months as Bishop of Pittsburgh he had to meet with two brothers who had been victims of abuse. Wuerl said he was profoundly affected by the experience and came away with “a permanent resolve that this should never happen again.”
In 1989, Wuerl established a diocesan committee to evaluate policies for responding to abuse allegations. This committee grew to become the Diocesan Review Board, nearly a decade before the Dallas Charter called for every diocese to have such a body.