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In scathing report, grand jury says priest abuse cover-up began at the top

A grand jury report on clerical abuse singles out bishop after bishop for criticism. The report says the church leaders put the needs of the institution ahead of victims.

Former Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, shown in a 2003 photo, is sharply criticized in a new grand jury report.
Former Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, shown in a 2003 photo, is sharply criticized in a new grand jury report.Read moreREUTERS/Mike Theile

When Philadelphia Msgr. William J. Lynn went on trial on charges that he led a cover-up of sexual abuse, he took refuge in the rigid hierarchy of the church.

"Priests are trained to respect and obey their bishops," Lynn testified in 2012. "When a bishop tells you to do something, you do it."

In the new, detailed, and massive report on clerical abuse across Pennsylvania, a grand jury Tuesday made much the same point. The grand jury said the state's bishops had misused their power and enabled the victimization of children: transferring abusive priests, failing to notify police of their crimes, misleading the public about their misconduct, and, in the case of one alleged molester, even officiating at his funeral.

"A priest is a priest,"  Bishop Donald Wuerl, then the church leader in Erie, declared at the service for the Rev. George Zirwas, who had been repeatedly accused of groping boys over two decades. "Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever."

The report says that Wuerl — now the cardinal archbishop in Washington — put Zirwas on leave after yet another report came in that he had molested a boy. But Wuerl refused to let Pittsburgh parishioners know why the priest had been placed on leave, the report said.

More coverage
Hundreds of priests named in grand jury report | Grand jury: A child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese | Read the full report | Dozens of pages shielded from public | Maria Panaritis: Thank the law, not the Men of God | Victim: 'It's your word against God's' | Key findings from each diocese | How the Allentown diocese dealt with an abuser | John Baer: Questions in wake of the report

In a statement later Tuesday, Wuerl said the church had "deep sorrow and contrition" about the abuse. At the same time, he said he had acted with "concerns for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse."

Wuerl is among a string of bishops, some long retired or dead, singled out for criticism in the report. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at a news conference to release the document, flatly called one such former leader, Donald Trautman of Erie, "a corrupt bishop."

The report says former Greensburg Bishop William G. Connare, now deceased, accepted a problem priest as a favor to a bishop in another state  even after the priest had admitted to molesting 35 boys. After the transfer, the priest abused other children in Greensburg.

The current bishop in Harrisburg, Ronald Gainer, successfully pleaded with the Vatican not to defrock an abusive priest, according the report, so as to not add "further anxiety or suffering to his situation, and without risking public knowledge of his crimes."

The report had planned to also criticize another former bishop, Lawrence Brandt, also from Greensburg. But Brandt filed a legal challenge that led the state Supreme Court to include him among about 24 former and current clerics who successfully had their names and information about their conduct redacted within the 1,356-page document. They argued that they had not been given a fair chance to rebut the accusations.

The report inadvertently disclosed that Brandt was among those who won excision. While nearly all details of criticism of him were blacked out, the report at one point reveals through dates and context that Brandt had informed the Vatican he was able to keep one victim from going public.

The report also provided little fresh information on the late Anthony J. Bevilacqua, who headed the Pittsburgh Diocese in the 1980s for five years before becoming head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1988 and remaining for the next 15 years.

In 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury chastised Bevilacqua's leadership, charging that he had "excused and enabled" years of abuse. The report released Tuesday did raise a question about Bevilacqua's tenure in Pittsburgh, noting a curious "lack of documentation" about his oversight of one abusive priest.

Lynn was a top aide to Bevilacqua, responsible for investigating allegations against priests and recommending action to the archbishop.  His 2012 conviction on child-endangerment charges was overturned on appeal and his retrial is pending.

In Allentown, the report says, a priest sexually abused two teenage girls during a car trip in the mid-1960's. After one of the girls reported the abuse, the diocese's law firm set about discrediting her. It sent church officials reports in which an informant said the girl had been a go-go dancer and had a family member who went to prison.

The diocesan leader at the time was Bishop Edward Cullen, who, before his decade leading Allentown's diocese, was an administrator at the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Of all the bishops cited, Shapiro and the report were most critical of Erie's Trautman. Shapiro said Trautman, 82, was guilty of "putting the institution ahead of his flock's well-being and repeatedly lying about it."

In particular, the grand jury report cited the case of the Rev. William Presley, saying the Erie Diocese kept him in ministry for years even though it knew he had abused at least two children as early as 1987. When three victims came forward against Presley in 2002 —  the year the church-abuse scandal erupted nationwide with the publication of articles in the Boston Globe — Trautman's diocese issued a statement saying it knew of only one abuse allegation and had "no information about other possible allegations."

In May, in an earlier action by the grand jury, the panel brought criminal charges against an Erie priest, the Rev. David Poulson, accusing him of assaulting two boys whom the priest allegedly abused after Mass on Sundays and then made go to Confession to describe the incidents.

After Poulson's arrest, Trautman defended his leadership and quoted victims praising his assistance. During his tenure, he said, he had removed 22 priests from "active ministry," mostly for allegations of abuse of children. As for Poulson, Trautman said he never was informed of the allegations against him.

Earlier this month, Trautman revealed he also was among those former and current clerics who had filed legal challenges to the report.  He dropped his challenge after Shapiro declared that several statements denouncing church leaders in the report did not apply to Trautman.

Despite Shapiro's statement, Tuesday's report remained highly critical of the former Erie bishop. Shapiro reiterated that at his news conference, citing the Poulson case.

Trautman, the attorney general said, "knew about this abuse — and covered it up."