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."
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.
In his letter to the priests of Washington, he said that he had tried to live up to his own zero-tolerance standards.
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"The diocese [of Pittsburgh] investigated all allegations of child sexual abuse during my tenure there and admitted or substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse resulted in appropriate action including the removal of the priest from ministry," Wuerl wrote to the Washington presbyterate.
What constitutes "appropriate action" is something that has changed in the years since the sexual abuse crisis at the turn of the millennium and the formation of the Dallas Charter by the United States bishops.
As Bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl says he implemented a policy that formally encouraged Catholics making complaints to also report them directly to law enforcement agencies, and sometimes informed civil authorities himself, even against the express wishes of the person making the allegations.
Of the 19 priests whose original allegations were handled by Wuerl, 18 were immediately removed from pastoral assignments and a kept away from any further contact with children.
But, when allegations could not be satisfactorily established, many of these were given administrative positions in the diocesan chancery, something which would be considered inappropriate under current standards. Unlike the worst examples of earlier abuse cases in dioceses like Boston and Los Angeles, Wuerl is adamant that he never moved an accused or suspected abuser from parish to parish, or left them in parish ministry.
Indeed, from his first year in Pittsburgh, Wuerl acted publicly on issues related to clerical sexual abuse, even in the face of Church opposition.