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In 15 years Wuerl has dealt with red ink, downsizing, sex abuse

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 15 years at the helm of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop Donald Wuerl's hair has paled from steel gray to silver and his face has been etched by crises that began even before his March 25, 1988, installation ceremony.

Bishop Donald Wuerl at mass Thursday at St. Mary of Mercy, Downtown. (John Beale, Post-Gazette photos)

He has vanquished a multimillion-dollar deficit, saved inner-city Catholic schools by creating a foundation to support them, and presided over a traumatic reorganization that closed many churches but left the diocese with 215 active parishes for 812,000 parishioners.

He emerged from last year's Catholic sexual abuse scandals as a poster bishop for zero tolerance, hailed as a role model for his 1993 refusal to obey a Vatican order to reinstate an accused pedophile priest who had never been convicted of a crime, but who Wuerl believed was guilty.

Now 62, he laughs off rumors of transfer to Philadelphia or Boston. He will celebrate an anniversary Mass at 8 a.m. Tuesday in St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland. In a recent interview, the Mount Washington native reflected on what he has learned as bishop.

The most important lesson has been on the necessity of tending his own soul. He recently sought out the priest who was his spiritual director 40 years ago at the Catholic University of America. And the old priest's advice hadn't changed.

"His point was -- and it's a thing that I know needs to be done -- you must find time, quiet time and prayer time every day," Wuerl said. "I think the one thing, going into the future, that I have learned from the past is you need to make that time. You can't live without it."

The best part of being a bishop, he said, is the opportunity to help people focus on the meaning of life. That's why, when a disaster such as the 1994 USAirways crash strikes the community, he drops everything else to address it.

"If there is something of grave concern to the community and you don't bring the spiritual dimension to it, the community is impoverished. We just don't live by bread alone. Our people know that -- and when I say our people I mean all the people of this community, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim," he said.

His most painful problems were not the public crises.

"The most difficult thing I have had to deal with as bishop is when a priest comes to me and says, 'I'm thinking of leaving the ministry,' " Wuerl said.

These are not priests he removed for wrongdoing, but included some very good men.

"You feel so inadequate. I feel there must be something I can say or do that would call that person back to that first fervor of priesthood," he said.

Sometimes he has succeeded.

"And that is what makes the ones that don't turn out so sad. Only after you have ... anticipated ordination and longed for it and experienced the joy of it can you realize how powerful that is. I think it's akin to someone falling in love and getting married."

'You offer to be present'

Wuerl, who spent just six months as a parish priest after his 1966 ordination, said bishops and parish priests have different roles, but must share one key characteristic.

"You have to love your people," he said.

"I'm not talking about gooshy, affective, warm and cuddly. I'm talking about the love you see in parents for their children. The love that true friendship has. Wanting the good for other people, being prepared to make sacrifices for them and being prepared even to say strong things to them to help them understand what it is you are talking about."

Tough love was necessary almost immediately in 1988, when he first decided he would not return a priest who had ever sexually abused a minor to ministry.

During the 1970s the now-late Bishop Vincent Leonard had transferred offenders to other parishes. In the 1980s then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua sometimes put them in nonparish ministries on the recommendation of treatment centers. Wuerl's policy was shaped not by attorneys and canonists, he said, but by asking the Holy Spirit to show him how a bishop should act.

When he became bishop of Pittsburgh Wuerl learned that three priests were on administrative leave for having molested the same two altar boys. Later that year the boys' parents decided to press charges and sue the diocese. (The diocese settled out of court, and two of the priests went to prison).

But early on, his attorneys warned Wuerl not to speak with the family. Instead, after asking their pastor if they would like to hear from him, he called their home. The mother invited him to dinner.

"I said [to myself] these are good people, these are good people. They've been wronged. There is nobody else in the church who can right that wrong. And I represent the church," Wuerl said.

"I had been a priest long enough to say, what else do I bring to this if I don't go and see them? ... Isn't that what a priest does in any situation? You offer to be present. ... You are not going there as a spokesperson, you are not going there as legal counsel, you are not going there as canonical counsel. You are going there as their priest."

Lost 113,000 Catholics

The Post-Gazette later interviewed several people who were either at that dinner or who saw Wuerl in the office the next day. By all accounts he was morally outraged by the emotional and spiritual damage the priests had done to the boys and everyone who loved them. Shortly afterward he informed his priests that child molesters would not be returned to ministry.

After listening to the victims, "You can't help but ... say, 'This is not going to happen again on my watch. I don't know how, but we are going to take all the steps to see that it doesn't happen again. And you do the best you can,' " he said.

By all evidence, he has stuck to that decision. The one pending child molestation suit was filed in 2000 and concerns 20-year-old complaints against Jack Hoehl, who Wuerl banned from ministry in 1988 based on someone else's allegations.

Bishop Donald Wuerl meets with diocese staff members. From left are Susan Rauscher, secretary for pastoral and social life, Sister Margaret Hannan, associate general secretary, and Bishop David Zubik, general secretary and auxiliary bishop.

In at least three cases involving molestation, fraud or embezzlement by priests, diocesan officials called the police and faced the headlines. It is now diocesan policy to report all child abuse allegations to the police, no matter how old.

"I think we learned very, very early on that you can't hide something like this," Wuerl said.

Ironically, a case that he hoped would remain quiet was his fight with the Vatican to keep Anthony Cipolla out of ministry. Wuerl, who had worked at the Vatican for 10 years, did not want to paint Rome as a villain or look like a rebel. News about the case came from Cipolla's supporters, who still view Wuerl as a tyrant persecuting an innocent man. But that case -- and its unwanted publicity -- was his salvation at a time when the media implied that all bishops tolerated pedophiles.

"I never thought I would have looked back on the Father Cipolla case and seen all of that as a blessing, but it turned out to be one in disguise -- very well disguised. It turned out to be a blessing, because we implemented policy and saw to it that, if something like that happened again, the person could not be back in church," Wuerl said.

If he is now best known outside the diocese for zero tolerance on child molesters, he may be best remembered within it for the diocesan reorganization. With the collapse of the steel industry, between 1978 and 1988 the diocese lost 113,000 Catholics, the equivalent of 26 large parishes. After officiating at his first two funerals for priests, Wuerl realized he could no longer supply many of the small, often ethnic parishes clustered within blocks of each other.

After three years of grass-roots planning involving 10,000 parishioners, between 1992 and 1994 he dissolved 163 of 333 parishes and missions. He closed 39 churches outright and created 56 new ones, merged parishes that each initially used two or more of the old church buildings for Mass. Some Catholics vented their anger in 14 lawsuits and several appeals to the Vatican that went nowhere. Although some mergers were difficult, most parishioners have adapted.

The lesson he learned was on the importance of explaining, over and over to anyone who will listen, what he is doing and why.

"I have often said that, instead of the motto 'Thy kingdom come' on my coat of arms, it should really be 'You can never communicate too much,' " he said.

But money was the first crisis Wuerl confronted. He inherited a $2.6 million deficit that was projected to rise to $3.8 million within a year. He immediately appointed an advisory panel of lay financial experts and cut $1 million from his operating budget -- without laying off any employees. He also gathered all of the priests -- many of whom believed the diocese had hidden funds -- to lay out the grim financial picture in detail.

The diocese finished the 1990 fiscal year in the black and has not run a deficit since. Last year, despite the national sexual abuse scandal and a bad economy, giving to the Diocese of Pittsburgh rose slightly.

"The reason we have never gone back to the red is I think we have all been so traumatized by the thought of what we started with," Wuerl said. "You have to demonstrate to the faithful people and the wider community that you are absolutely responsible.""

After 15 years, Wuerl believes there are many things be could have done better in hindsight.

"On the other hand, would I want to go back and undo things? No, no."


Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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