The Case Against Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Mar 11, 2013 - by Michael Volpe - 0 Comments

Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Cardinal Donald Wuerl (Photo: World Tribune)

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of the Washington, D.C. Diocese, has an undeserved reputation as a “zero-tolerance” prelate when it comes to dealing with pedophile priests.

By Michael Volpe

As cardinals from around the world filed into the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, to elect the successor to Saint Peter, a great deal of pre-conclave speculation focused on the possibility of the election of the first American pope in history. The names of three U.S. cardinals were mentioned in a report on NPR’s “Morning Edition” by political reporter Cokie Roberts: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Roberts cited Dolan for his telegenic, charismatic personality, O’Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, for his down-to-earth humility, and Wuerl for his “management” expertise. There is a notion that the Vatican needs to undergo a sea change to regain its role as a moral authority, thus the focus on out-of-the-box thinking that might open the door at St. Peter’s to an American prelate. The odds against that happening are extremely long, but having Cardinal Wuerl in the mix may be a reflection of his “zero-tolerance” for pedophile priests that won him public acclaim during his years as a bishop. 

The new Pope will also have to face the charges of mismanagement at the Vatican bank and somehow find a way to move beyond the devastating revelations about the bitter infighting in the Vatican’s central administration known as the Curia. This embarrassing episode was set off in early 2012 when the Pope’s butler leaked an enormous stash of papal documents to an Italian reporter that provided an unprecedented inside look at the dysfunctional workings of the Vatican. Known as VatiLeaks, the expose was, no doubt, among the factors that led to Pope Benedict’s stunning announcement in February that he would end his eight-year reign and become the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

But no matter what else the new Pope does, he must be able to move the Catholic Church beyond the priest sex-abuse scandals that have engulfed the church for the last three decades. Other issues are also important, but cleansing the clergy of pedophiles is the most basic challenge the new Pope must meet.

No issue more crippled the papacy of Benedict XVI than his inability to distance himself from the priest sex-abuse scandal. The problem he had was endemic: No one more so than himself had been at the center of the pedophile-priest maelstrom or should feel more responsibility for all the harm its thousands of victims have suffered. From 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation For the Doctrine of Faith – a role that placed him in charge of the Vatican's dealings with all Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse. Cardinal Ratzinger's failure to deal responsibly with that duty has allowed the priest sex-abuse scandal to become the defining issue of his aborted eight-year papacy and very likely the issue that drove him to resign.

The bunker mentality within the Vatican, championed by Cardinal Ratzinger and allowed to persist by Pope John Paul II, was a contagion that spread to Catholic dioceses throughout the United States, Germany and Ireland. In the United States, Catholic cardinals in the archdioceses of Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles dutifully followed suit by reassigning known sex-offender priests to other parishes in an attempt to bury the scandal.

Instead of the Vatican disciplining Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, he was allowed to resign as archbishop and relocate to Rome where Pope John Paul II appointed him archpriest of the Papal Basilica di Santa Mario Maggiore.

Pope Benedict waited five months to accept the resignation of Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Justin Rigali after a Philadelphia Grand Jury report accused the archdiocese there of covering up abuse allegations against 37 priests. Monsignor William Lynn did not fare as well for his role in the cover-up. He was convicted in 2012 on the felony count of child endangerment and sentenced to three to six years in prison.

In Los Angeles, where the archdiocese paid out a record $660 million to settle 506 civil cases of child sexual abuse by clergy in 2007, Archbishop Jose Gomez took the unprecedented step of disciplining his immediate predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, on February 2, 2013 after a California judge forced the archdiocese to release about 12,000 pages of church documents revealing how it handled allegations of abuse. Archbishop Gomez relieved Cardinal Mahony of his public and administrative duties for his mishandling of the priest pedophile scandal during his tenure as archbishop, 1984 to 2011. The Los Angeles Police Department announced that it was examining the documents to determine if new prosecutions were warranted.

The discipline Archbishop Gomez meted out to Cardinal Mahony, however, will not prevent Cardinal Mahony from participating in the election of the next pope despite the fact that a group called Catholics United collected thousands of signatures asking that he recuse himself from the conclave. Not long after Pope Benedict announced his resignation, Cardinal Mahony was in Rome sending tweets from the Vatican: “Good weather forecast for this week in Rome; no rain. Mid 50s during the day, upper 30s at night. Great Holy Spirit weather!!” Prior to departing for Rome, Cardinal Mahony was blogging about the public criticism he has received, comparing it to the public ridicule Christ underwent.

Bishops in smaller dioceses throughout the United States were far from immune to the cover-up syndrome that afflicted large dioceses presided over by cardinals. In October of 2011, the Bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph (Missouri) Diocese, Robert Finn, became the first Catholic bishop indicted for covering up sexual abuse by a diocesan priest (by courtney at testsforge). In September of 2012, a Jackson County judge found him guilty of the misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse in 2012 and sentenced Bishop Finn to two years of unsupervised probation. As an example of how tone deaf the Vatican under Pope Benedict is to the public's disgust with priest pedophilia, Bishop Finn remains in place.

It wasn't as though U.S. bishops as a whole had agreed to stick their collective heads into the sand. In the mid-2000s, the Catholic Conference of Bishops called for a zero-toleration policy on sexual abuse by priests. The bishops proclaimed they were determined to oust all predator priests from ministry. Bishop Finn, it might be said, didn't get the memo, but he was by 2011 walking the denial plank at great risk to not only the children under his care, but to his own career as well. Some other bishops were making a name for themselves by publicly stating their abhorrence to sexual abuse by clergy. Being out front against pedophilia was all of a sudden – and none too early – a good way to gain advancement for an aspiring bishop.

The “Zero-Tolerance” Mantra

Take the case of the aforementioned Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who built a "zero-toleration" reputation while serving as the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) from 1988 until 2006. (In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI installed Wuerl as the archbishop of the Washington, D.C. Catholic Diocese. Four years later, Pope Benedict elevated Archbishop Wuerl to cardinal, making him a prince of the Catholic Church.)

Following a six months investigation, Crime Magazine has concluded that the perception that Wuerl is a “zero tolerance” church leader is unwarranted. Instead, this investigation found that Wuerl has repeatedly stood in the way or looked the other way into investigation of suspected child abuse in parishes within the Pittsburgh Diocese.

While the mainstream media have perceived Wuerl one way, the nation’s largest organization of sexual victims of Catholic priests – a group called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests – does not share that view. David Clohessey, the organization’s executive director, told Crime Magazine that Cardinal Wuerl’s charming and pleasant demeanor has helped him pull the proverbial wool over many people’s eyes.

“He's apparently a very smart and personable man who gets good legal and public relations advice and follows it. (He's the only bishop in the U.S. that I know of who, during the height of the abuse crisis, bought 30 minutes of prime TV time to run what amounted to an infomercial burnishing his record on handling abuse cases.) In each diocese, he's benefited from archaic, predator-friendly laws that prevent all but a few victims from taking legal action to expose men who commit and conceal child sex crimes.”

Whatever the actual perception, Clohessey was clear that Wuerl should not be perceived as fighting for the victims.

“I think Wuerl, like many of his clerical colleagues, worked hard to keep clergy sex crimes concealed, and is likely doing so even now. It's clear that he had his sights set on climbing in the hierarchy and he succeeded, in part I suspect, because he's adept at posturing as a reformer. But with Wuerl, it's more style than substance, at least with child sex crimes.”

Father Anthony Cippola

The case that made Bishop Wuerl’s reputation as a zero-tolerance prelate involved Father Cippola, a case based almost entirely on the accusations of one individual, Tim Bendig, a former seminarian in the Pittsburgh Diocese. Initially, Bishop Wuerl indicated to the media that he’d looked into the matter and found nothing of it. What follows are the first two paragraphs from a Pittsburgh Press article from November 23, 1988 about Cippola’s case and another similar allegation.

“Two recent allegations of sexual misconduct by priests were ‘both prefaced with requests for money,’ according to Donald W. Wuerl, bishop of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

“In both cases, Wuerl said the diocese refused to pay money, investigated the allegations and could find no corroboration.”

Bishop Wuerl changed his mind about Bendig’s allegations against Father Cippola after he found out that similar allegations had been made 10 years earlier against Cippola while he was a parish priest at St. Francis Xavier in Pittsburgh. The complaint was lodged by Diane Thompson. She claimed that her son was sexually abused by Cippola while taking first Holy Communion lessons from him at the parish church. Thompson, who worked at the parish as well, made the complaint within months of the alleged incident.

With this information before him, Bishop Wuerl took another look at the allegations brought by Tim Bendig.

Bendig first accused Cippola of sexually molesting him in November 1988, the year Wuerl was installed as bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese. What the newspapers didn’t report was that Bendig first made this accusation shortly after the young man had flunked out of the Pittsburgh Catholic Seminary, located in Crafton, Pennsylvania. Something else that wasn’t reported in the press was that Bendig had motivation to lash out at Cippola: Shortly after news of Bendig’s expulsion from the seminary leaked out, Father Cippola told a group of parishioners not to send money to Bendig for this reason. Not long after this Bendig first accused Cippola of molesting him.

Once Bishop Wuerl decided to pursue the child molestation complaints brought by Diane Thompson and Tim Bendig, he initiated proceedings against Father Cippola, petitioning the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy under the rules of Canon Law to have the priest removed from ministry. Father Cippola, in his own defense, fought the petition by counter suing the Congregation of the Clergy. The legal back and forth went on until 1995, when the Vatican ruled that Cippola was to be removed from the clergy – not for being a child molester – but because he was suffering from depression and had suicidal tendencies.

It should be noted that no criminal charges were ever initiated against Father Cippola in connection with the child molestation accusations brought by Diane Thompson or Tim Bendig. Crime Magazine spoke briefly with Father Cippola by phone but he refused to give any statements on the record.

A near six-month investigation by Crime Magazine uncovered a major red flag in Wuerl’s investigation of Cippola: Tim Bendig was not a credible accuser. The former seminarian has a history of not always telling the truth. In a deposition related to other charges of sexual abuse Bendig had made against other clergy and fellow seminarians, Bendig was forced to admit that accusations he later made against nine other priests and 14 seminarians were based entirely on rumors and third-hand stories he claimed to have heard. He admitted he was never molested by any of those others he’d accused in this deposition. Crime Magazine emailed Tim Bendig but that email was left unreturned.

Diane Thompson’s accusation was made in 1978. Crime Magazine could not acquire any documentation related to the accusation and her whereabouts are unknown.

In preparation for this article, a message was left for comment for Cardinal Wuerl by Crime Magazine at his Washington D.C. office prior to his leaving for the Vatican, but that message was not returned.

Wolk, Zuta, and Pucci

In the mid 1990’s, after Father Cippola was removed from ministry by the Vatican, reporter Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette began writing a series of articles featuring Pittsburgh Bishop Wuerl. These articles were largely favorable toward Wuerl and helped immensely in crafting his positive public image. It was surprising that she wrote so favorably about Bishop Wuerl’s handling of pedophile priest because about seven years prior different reporters from the same newspaper filed a number of stories involving a cover-up of child abuse in the Pittsburgh Diocese and in these stories Wuerl was painted as uncooperative.

As Wuerl was first beginning to take over as bishop in Pittsburgh in 1988, three other priests – Robert Wolk, Richard Zuta, and Francis Pucci – were all being investigated by the Washington County District’s Attorney’s Office on suspicion of child molestation. (Pucci was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out. The other two were prosecuted and convicted.) While Wuerl wasn’t head at Pittsburgh while the molestation occurred, the facts only came to light after he’d taken over. According to newspaper accounts at the time, Bishop Wuerl was then accused of being uncooperative with law enforcement authorities investigating the matter. In fact, that’s exactly what the Washington County District Attorney John Pettit, who was responsible for investigating the three priests, said at the time, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “It was not the spirit of cooperation we’d like to see.” Later in the article Pettit depicted the Pittsburgh Diocese’s cooperation with the investigation of the three priests as “minimal at best.”

Father John Wellinger

From 1987-1996, Father John Wellinger was a priest in the Pittsburgh Diocese. Wuerl was his bishop for the last nine of those years. During those years Father Wellinger systematically abused children without drawing any investigation from the Pittsburgh Diocese.  Eventually, in 2004, a 25-person class action law suit was filed against the Pittsburgh Diocese. The petitioners included multiple victims of Father Wellinger. The Pittsburgh Diocese settled the suit by paying $1.2 million in damages to the victims.

Crime Magazine spoke with one of the victims of the abuse who was part of the lawsuit. His name is Chris Mathews and his story was reported repeatedly when it was first revealed. Matthews told Crime Magazine that he considers Wuerl,“the most evil person I’ve ever met.”

Mathews said that he remembered going directly to Wuerl in the mid 1990s and describing the abuse perpetrated upon him by Father Wellinger in detail. Mathews said that Wuerl listened quietly, politely assuring Mathews that appropriate steps would be taken, and then proceeded to bury Mathews’s accusation.

The accusations Mathews brought to Bishop Wuerl wouldn’t come to light for more than a decade until they were included in the class-action lawsuit. Matthews has been quoted routinely in Pittsburgh papers alleging he was once the victim of child abuse by Wellinger.  Here’s part of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from July 7, 2004.

“To test their argument, attorneys for 25 plaintiffs chose the case of the former Rev. John Wellinger, who is accused of molesting 11-year-old Chris Matthews in 1989.

“The Post-Gazette's policy is to withhold the names of victims of alleged sexual abuse, but Matthews, now 26, has given his permission to publish his name. He says the diocese broke a promise to his parents to ‘defrock’ Wellinger. Diocesan officials say Bishop Donald Wuerl forbade Wellinger ever to dress, act or identify himself as a priest again.”

Curiously enough, John Wellinger was already on leave of absence in 1995, when the allegation was first made, and he remained on leave of absence until he formally withdrew from the ministry in 2003. He didn’t participate in any ministerial duties during that time period.

Father James Torquato

Then, there’s the case of James Torquato, who was Bishop Wuerl’s personal secretary for about three years starting in the summer of 1992.

Torquato allegedly abused a young parishioner and the alleged abuse went on for more than seven years, starting in 1990 and ending in 1997. In January of 1998, this young parishioner, who Crime Magazine will not identify, accused Torquato of sexually molesting him in a letter to then Bishop Donald Wuerl. According to this letter, which Crime Magazine has acquired, here’s how the alleged victim described the confrontation:

“Whatever be the case, everything contained in my letter of complaint concerning Father Jim Torquato is completely true. I do not retract a single statement of that January letter. However, my January narrative of Fr. Jim Torquato’s actions was a condensed and abbreviated version. You see, being that I had a planned sabbatical shortly ahead of me, I at least made sure that you would get enough written material about Fr. Torquato in order to show you he is not safe to keep anywhere within arm’s reach of young men.”

The alleged victim then went on to detail how Torquato ingratiated himself in the victim’s life, then initiated physical contact like massages, and eventually manipulated him into molestation.

Here’s how the alleged victim described Torquato’s escalation in his letter to Wuerl.

“Many times I declined [offered massages]. After two or three minutes of conversation he would pause and ask again, ‘Are you sure I can’t do your back?’ He would use a superior tone of voice that implied that he knew better than I did concerning what was best for me. It was an awkward situation.”

Patrick Pontillo, who has known the alleged victim for more than two decades, acted as an advocate during much of the ordeal. Pontillo is a local entrepreneur and was a parishioner in the same church as the accuser.

In an interview with Crime Magazine, Pontillo described in more detail his connection to Cardinal Wuerl, and specifically the alleged attempted sexual assault and cover-up there of the long time secretary to Wuerl, James Torquato..

“I knew Torquato's accuser-to-be for four and a half years, before I was informed of what was transpiring over a several year period. At the time when Torquato was reported, I and Torquato's accuser-to-be were allied with each other in the quest to start a movement to end America’s cooperation with foreign sweatshop labor profiteering.  

“Torquato didn't want me to have any influence on the young adult at all.  So, almost immediately after Torquato met me, Torquato continuously started to call the home of the young adult male trying to gain influence and subsequently reduce my own influence.  This set off the red flag in the mind of Torquato's soon-to-be accuser.  Shortly afterward,Torquato's accuser let me know what was going on with him.”

Instead, said Pontillo, the alleged victim was retaliated against. This included, said Pontillo, the victim’s uncle losing a number of contracts with the Pittsburgh Diocese. The victim’s uncle had made an agreement for the Pittsburgh Diocese to purchase a number of Amway products. The contracts were worth a few thousand dollars

According to a report filed with Pittsburgh Police Department, the victim’s place of residence was also ransacked by agents who appeared to be acting as agents for a priest. Here’s the pertinent portion.

“(I) heard a noise a like a bunch of people jumping up and down – a lot of screaming. They were yelling things like: ‘Mike, come out and come home. It will be all right; we’ll forgive you. You’re a good boy, Mike. You’re going to heaven.’”

Pontillo said that the accusations against Torquato were never properly investigated and he remains a priest in the Catholic Church to this day. Torquato currently is located in Rankin, Pennsylvania where he is the pastor of St. Basil’s Church.

The Shooting of Adam Ference

Mike Ference’s son, Adam, was shot in the back of the head on December 5, 1989 by Bob Butler. Butler was a 15-year-old sophomore while Adam was a 16-year-old junior in Serra Catholic High School at the time of the attempted murder. According to Mike Ference, the shooter raised the gun to within inches of his son’s head and at point blank range pulled the trigger once. The shooter then turned the gun on himself, fired one shot into his head and probably died instantly.

Both boys were rushed to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. Adam Ference would be air-lifted to a trauma unit at Presbyterian University Hospital in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, now known as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). He would undergo emergency neuro-surgery for hours before eventually returning home with little more than minor peripheral vision damage to one side of his brain. The trauma, however, would remain with Adam and his family members

Almost immediately after the attempted murder of his son, Mike Ference attempted to find the truth and understand why his son’s shooter did what he did. His investigation would eventually lead him to suspect that the primary reason behind Bob Butler’s unexplainable shooting of his son was a result of Father John Wellinger sexually abusing Butler when he was an altar boy.

It wasn’t easy for Ference to come to this theory. Ference began his search by meeting on a regular basis with then Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully, who played an active role in the shooting investigation, working with McKeesport police to begin to piece things together.

As time went by, Ference said that Scully’s demeanor changed. Ference said that in January, 1990, Scully began to tell him that the entire case was being botched and that the McKeesport police had deliberately quashed the case. In January of 1990, Scully met with Mike Ference and his wife to share notes and his thoughts on why the case had been quashed.

Here’s what Ference said occurred in this meeting. First, Scully alleged that the shooter may have been molested by Father John Wellinger when he was an altar boy at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Clairton, Pennsylvania in the late 1980s when Wellinger was an assistant priest at the parish. Scully gave the father notes and plenty of information to conduct his own investigation, including the name of a teenage boy from Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania who Scully alleged was provided with drugs and alcohol by Wellinger. Wellinger was then the parish priest at Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.

Ference also said that Scully also admitted that he was too scared to go to the proper authorities to report his findings for fear he would lose his job.

Since that meeting, Ference said that he has tried without much success to get the whole truth behind his son’s attempted murder. Ference tried everything. He went to the media, the Pennsylvania State Police, FBI, Governor’s Office, U.S. senators, his congressman, state representatives, and even Wuerl himself. Ference contends that the McKeesport Police Department and the Pittsburgh Diocese ignored what he believes is evidence that Wellinger had molested Butler, and that it was this molestation that led to Butler shooting his son.

For the Catholic Church to dig out from under the priest-abuse scandal it will take more than paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the victims. It will take prelates such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl to atone for past lapses in protecting children from predatory priests by actually instituting – not simply mouthing – zero-tolerance policies.

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