In his first year as the Roman Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988, Donald Wuerl publicly voiced doubts about a lawsuit filed by a former seminarian who claimed that when he was a boy, a priest had sexually abused him for years.
Despite the skepticism, now-Cardinal Wuerl did send the priest off for a psychiatric evaluation. The bishop became convinced soon enough that the allegations against the Rev. Anthony Cipolla were credible. He prevented the priest from returning to the ministry even through a high-stakes legal battle with the Vatican in the 1990s.
Now Cardinal Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, is paying tribute to Tim Bendig, the abuse survivor who filed that initial lawsuit, apologizing for his initial doubts and saying he helped protect other children and reform the church.
Abuse survivors such as Mr. Bendig call on church leaders to “uphold our own moral teaching,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
“I was among those not immediately persuaded by some concerns he raised,” Cardinal Wuerl said in a Nov. 23 statement in the Archdiocese of Washington’s newspaper, the Catholic Standard. “I have since learned to be less hesitant in taking at face value such allegations. Tim Bendig told the truth about a priest who was a terrible danger to children, and without his action that priest might have continued in ministry. Telling that truth helped all of us to become a better Church.”
Mr. Bendig, now a small-business owner living in suburban Pittsburgh, said he was overwhelmed by Cardinal Wuerl’s affirmation.
“It’s amazing,” Mr. Bendig said. “I am humbled that Cardinal Wuerl went above and beyond not only to speak out for the many victims but specifically apologizing to me. I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Two factors went into the timing of Cardinal Wuerl’s statements, decades after the case arose. Mr. Bendig said he had spoken with church officials, asking for them to affirm his account even as some internet pages persistently challenge his account and Cardinal Wuerl’s overall record here.
Also, the statement comes amid news that the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has subpoenaed records from the Diocese of Pittsburgh and five other Catholic dioceses as it investigates the handling of sexually abusive priests going back decades. That includes then-Bishop Wuerl’s 1988-2006 tenure in Pittsburgh before he was reassigned to Washington.
The Catholic Standard article says investigators will find Cardinal Wuerl to have been a “champion of zero tolerance” since his time in Pittsburgh. It includes a lengthy excerpt from a 2015 biography of Cardinal Wuerl, “Something More Pastoral,” written by former Post-Gazette religion writer Ann Rodgers and Catholic author Mike Aquilina.
It says then-Bishop Wuerl was prompted to take a hard-line stance against abusive priests early in his tenure here after a dinner meeting with the parents of two victims of other priests, where he saw firsthand the impact on victims and their families.🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻🔻
➽In Mr. Cipolla’s case, the 1988 lawsuit was not the only allegation against the former priest. Mr. Cipolla also was charged in 1978 for sexually abusing a boy. The mother of that boy soon agreed to drop those charges — because, she later testified in a deposition, she faced intense pressure to do so from then-Bishop Vincent Leonard and others.⇐
↦Mr. Cipolla was never convicted criminally and always maintained his innocence. But church officials found the charges credible.↞⬻⬻
He appealed his removal from ministry to a Vatican court and won a 1993 ruling ordering his reinstatement.
Bishop Wuerl refused to reinstate him and mounted a rare appeal.
The Vatican reversed course in 1995, affirming Mr. Cipolla’s removal from ministry. It removed him completely from the status of priest in 2002.
That was the year that an explosion of revelations about sexually abusive priests, beginning in Boston, forced bishops to adopt a nationwide policy similar to what Bishop Wuerl had been using, requiring the ouster of any priest for one or more instances of sexually abusing minors.
Cardinal Wuerl said Mr. Bendig’s pursuit of this case helped pave the way for that policy change.
“Without Tim Bendig’s courage and determination in bringing this case, it might have taken longer to begin to change a canonical system that made it difficult for bishops to remove priests who were a danger to the faithful,” he said.
Mr. Bendig and the diocese eventually settled his lawsuit.
Mr. Cipolla died of cardiac arrest at age 73 in August while driving in Warren, Ohio.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.