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Ex-priest slain in Cuba had trouble here

Saturday, June 02, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George Zirwas, the clergyman found murdered Monday in his Havana hotel room, had a bumpy 15-year priesthood before the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh banned him from ministry for reasons that it will not disclose.

Former parishioners yesterday praised his compassion and devotion to tradition.

But he moved far more often than most priests, had a close brush with a sex scandal and took two leaves of absence before the diocese placed him on administrative leave and ordered him not to identify himself as a Catholic priest.

Zirwas, 47, a native of McDonald, Washington County, attended St. Mary of the Mount Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., with the Rev. Peter Horton, campus chaplain at La Roche College.

He was always ready to lend a hand or give money to a fellow student, Horton said. Zirwas even sent thoughtful cards to Horton's mother.

Zirwas was old-fashioned in his liturgical taste and sometimes wore a cassock. But he was not opposed to the reforms of Vatican II, Horton said.

Zirwas was ordained in 1979 and served eight parishes. According to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, Zirwas spent less than a year at each of his first three parishes: Resurrection in Brookline, October 1979 to May 1980; St. Adalbert on the South Side, May 1980 to April 1981; and St. Joseph the Worker in New Castle, April 1981 to February 1982.

In that era, young priests typically spent five years at each church, Lengwin said. But if they were unhappy in their post, it was not unusual to be transferred much sooner, he said.

Zirwas' fourth assignment was the longest of his priesthood. From February 1982 to June 1989, he was a parochial vicar -- assistant priest -- at St. Michael in Elizabeth. Despite his youth, he started a traditional novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

"I missed him terribly when he left," said Anna Mae Roberts, the parish secretary throughout his tenure. "He was very kind. He never looked down on you."

Mary Briggs, the current secretary, said he was an excellent listener who took time with people and was always thinking of others. During parish fairs, when some parishioners worked themselves to exhaustion, he made the rounds asking if anyone wanted him to fill in so they could have a break.

Her voice broke when she spoke of his kindness after her mother's death. Briggs' mother was not Catholic. Yet Zirwas returned from vacation to pay a visit to the funeral home, Briggs said.

They stayed in touch after he was placed on administrative leave in 1996. But they didn't talk about his life in Florida or Cuba. He wanted to hear how his former parishioners were doing. He seemed to be healthy and in good spirits, she said.

And when rumors began circulating about Zirwas' involvement in a 1980s sex scandal at the Seven Springs resort, Briggs never believed any of it.

"There never was no truth to that. I could never imagine him doing anything like that. Never, never, never, no," she said.

No legal accusations were ever made against Zirwas.

In 1988, three diocesan priests were arrested for molesting two altar boys. The most prominent of them, the Rev. Robert Wolk, former pastor of St. Thomas More in Bethel Park, spent a decade in prison. The Rev. Richard Zula also went to prison after pleading guilty in a plea bargain in which 138 other counts of molestation were dropped.

The incident to which he pleaded guilty happened in the fall of 1984, when Zula rented a suite at Seven Springs and brought along his 15-year-old victim. The boy testified that Zula brought whiskey, which the boy drank. Then-Father Zirwas arrived with two other youths, but those boys left the suite to swim and play racquetball.

Zirwas remained in one room while Zula took the boy into a bedroom for sex, the victim testified.

"There was no accusation brought against him at that time," Lengwin said yesterday.

When the diocese learned of Zirwas' presence, he was called to the chancery and questioned.

"At that point, he denied that there was any wrong behavior on his part," Lengwin said.

Six months after the courtroom revelation, Zirwas was transferred to St. Bartholomew in Penn Hills, where he served from June 1989 to December 1991. In February 1991, he wrote a letter to The Pittsburgh Press, which was mildly critical of Catholic groups that opposed the Gulf War.

"Like those who oppose the war, I believe God is on the side of peace. Yet as a clergyman, I fully support our president, soldiers and allied forces who are risking their lives to bring about freedom for the people of Kuwait and peace to the Middle East," he wrote.

In December 1991, he was transferred to St. Scholastica in Aspinwall, where he served until May 1994. He then moved to St. Joseph in Verona. Three years later, he requested and received a leave of absence for personal reasons, Lengwin said. Such six-month leaves are granted for many reasons and priests who take them remain in good standing. He returned in July 1995 and was assigned to St. Maurice in Forest Hills.

Horton saw him that October, at a class reunion.

"He seemed really happy and exuberant," Horton recalled.

But a few weeks later, in November 1995, Zirwas again asked for and took a personal leave. About three months later, in February 1996, "we felt it was necessary to place him on administrative leave," Lengwin said.

The reasons for that decision are confidential, Lengwin said. There is a difference between administrative leave and personal leave. Personal leave is at a priest's request while administrative leave is imposed by the bishop. Administrative leave is never imposed due to illness, Lengwin said.

"When a priest is placed on administrative leave, the conditions are that he can no longer present himself as a priest in good standing. He can no longer wear the clerical collar and is not permitted to celebrate the sacraments publicly," Lengwin said.

Zirwas' name was expunged from the diocesan directory and the Official Catholic Directory of the United States.

Canon law requires the diocese to continue to pay the priest, Lengwin said.

Zirwas appears to have respected the restrictions placed on him. The Archdiocese of Havana has stated that it had never heard of him prior to his death and that he was not engaged in any church ministry. When he wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December 1999, protesting the embargo against Cuba, he gave no hint that he was a priest.

During three years of frequent visits to Cuba, according to his brother, Frank Zirwas, George Zirwas continued his lifelong generosity by delivering clothing and other items to Cubans in need.

After Zirwas was placed on administrative leave, diocesan officials became aware that he was ill, Lengwin said. Lengwin said he could not say what the illness was. Zirwas contacted the diocese asking for help with his medical expenses. Lengwin did not know if the money was sent.

Lengwin said the diocese first learned of Zirwas' death on Wednesday.

At a picnic Thursday in honor of priests celebrating their 25th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of ordination, Bishop Donald Wuerl announced that Zirwas had died and asked all of the priests to pray for him, Lengwin said.

Lengwin read in the newspaper about Frank Zirwas' complaints that his brother had not been given final sacraments and that the diocese did not help retrieve his body.

Sacraments cannot be given to the dead, Lengwin said.

A funeral home asked the diocese for assistance retrieving the body, he said. Since the United States has no diplomatic relationship with Cuba, diocesan officials did not know what to do and referred the funeral director to the family's congressman, Rep. Frank Mascara. Lengwin said that Mascara's office was helping.

Christopher Lamora, spokesman for the bureau of consular affairs at the U.S. State Department, said that the government is working through the U.S. Interests Section at the Swedish Embassy in Havana to retrieve Zirwas' body.

The Associated Press and Post-Gazette staff writers Steve Levin and Dave Peters contributed to this report.

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