Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh organized a press conference Oct.5 to announce that he had been accused of sexual abuse while serving as the vice-principal of a Catholic school in the 1980s.

At the press conference, Bishop Zubik emphatically denied the allegations, which had been posted on an Internet site. Subsequently, the Beaver County District Attorney, Anthony Berosh, publicly summarized the conclusions of his own investigation. Berosh said, “There is no basis in law or fact to substantiate the allegations.” He added, “(This information) was brought to us by the Diocese of Pittsburgh itself; I believe that says a lot about the integrity of the system.”

Ordained in 1975, Bishop Zubik was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh in 1997. In 2003, he was named 11th bishop of Green Bay, Wis., and in 2003 succeed his mentor, then-Bishop Donald Wuerl as bishop of Pittsburgh.

Bishop Zubik, who lives at St. Paul Seminary in East Carnegie, spoke to Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.

In the last 24 hours, you organized a press conference to announce that you had been accused of abuse when you were the vice-principal of a Catholic school, and then the district attorney announced that the accusations had no semblance of truth. Would you summarize the key events leading up to your announcement yesterday?

On Sept. 10, 2010, we got a call from the pastor of this individual’s parish. The pastor told me that the individual had indicated in a social setting that he had been molested by two priests, who had been removed 20 and 25 years ago.

The diocesan coordinator told the individual that it was my practice to meet with any former victims, and the man said he would think about it.

On June 1, I met with the man, his wife and the diocesan assistance coordinator, a professional social worker. But when he came in, he didn’t want to talk about the past. He had been out of the Church for a long time, and he spoke about problems that might prevent him from volunteering in ministry.

He had four felony convictions and his pastor said there was a good chance that the diocesan assessment board would not approve him for ministry. He asked me if I would overturn the decision by the diocesan assessment board.

I said, “I can’t and won’t do that. We have 36,000 people who go through background checks. We have to follow our policies.” But I said when the report came from the state, I’d take a look at it.

The report came back with red flags. The diocesan assessment board determined he was ineligible. On Aug. 16, the pastor was informed and he called the man that evening. When the man heard the news, he became furious. He said, “I will bring someone down and he is high up.”

Five days later, on Aug. 21, the pastor received an e-mail that reiterated the two original complaints of abuse and also said I had abused him.

Ten hours later, he sent another e-mail and said he was “sorry” for what he had done, but didn’t specify what he regretted.

I was given the e-mails he sent the pastor and immediately called a meeting of the special clergy task force. They described the messages as a “retaliation not an accusation.”

We took the e-mails to the district attorney, and I personally met with the chargé d’affaires [of the apostolic nunciature], who sent them on to Rome.

Then, a week ago Sunday, the man began to post on an Internet website that he had been molested by Bishop Zubik. At that point I knew we would have to go public, and organized a press conference yesterday.

What has been the reaction to your announcement?

In Pittsburgh, the response has been phenomenally supportive from the public and the priests.

The district attorney has announced that he investigated the accusations and could confirm they were not credible. He praised the diocese and me for reporting the accusations so promptly and said other organizations might not have done the same.

We are providing counseling for the man and I am praying for him.

You have acknowledged that many priests fear they will be falsely accused of abuse.

We can never defend any priest who has done wrong with a minor. The history of this diocese is that we have stepped out front to be of help to victims; priests who have done wrong have to face the consequences of their actions.

But I won’t let anyone make the priest’s collar a bull’s eye. At the press conference I pointed to my collar and said, “I have been putting this on with pride for a long time, and I won’t stop now.”

I want to defend the Church and the dignity of the priesthood — and only after that, my own name.

In Pittsburgh, people can understand me and they know who I am. But the reports about the accusations have surfaced elsewhere, and that means my reputation is in jeopardy.

When this came to a head I was called away from a meeting of the Pennsylvania bishops. I was told later that they had discussed the situation and admitted they were all afraid of a false accusation.

Somehow, because we are priests, they think we’ll sit back and let someone steamroll us.

In the wake of the 2002 clergy abuse crisis, some critics say that bishops should take more responsibility for what has happened. Some critics might even say you should have stepped aside until the accusations were thoroughly investigated.

My initial reaction was to suggest that perhaps I should step aside. I was told that was not my decision to make and that I should continue my work on behalf of the diocese.

The case is in the hands of the proper authorities in Rome. The chargé d’affaires at the nunciature told me to forward the report from the district attorney after I receive it. Archbishop [Charles] Chaput, my metropolitan archbishop, agreed that there was no semblance of truth to the accusations.

Bishops who have done wrong — including the bishops of Santa Rosa [Calif.] and West Palm Beach [Fla.] — have resigned. There are also others who have been falsely accused, such as Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin [of Chicago] and Bishop [William Skylstad] of Spokane, Wash.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, during an interview on 60 Minutes, described this as a time of purification for the Church.

Absolutely, I believe that. It has caused all of us as priests and bishops to be far more intentional regarding our responsibilities. We can’t take them lightly or for granted.

But take a look at the increase in the number of Catholic seminarians during this same period. People ask, “Based on everything that has happened, why would you become a priest?” Yet more young men are choosing to do it. Our seminary has 40 men.

People see that the Church is something more than a human institution. We are the Body of Christ. What is the essence of who we are: prayer, and dependence on God’s grace.

Underneath everything I have a deep sense of peace fostered by prayer and an understanding that whatever I am going through I can lift that up and know that God will use that for the salvation of souls. I was taught that long ago, but it’s a line of thinking we have lost today and need to recover — the meaning of suffering.

We priests and bishops also need your prayers so that we can be true to the call that God has given to us. We can’t take our priests for granted.

Things can go wrong, but that should not taint the image of the priesthood across the board. We need to have people stand up and defend the beauty of the gift of the priesthood.

You live at the seminary, and often counsel the seminarians. How have they reacted to this news?

They have been very supportive. They know me and they know the truth. When I came home yesterday after a meeting, they gave me a standing ovation.

I told them, “What I want you to understand is that you must always take the high road.”

The district attorney had told me that if he were the bishop he might not have brought this to the attention of the authorities.

I told the seminarians that the DA expressed my own fear: What if I got pulled from this assignment for something I didn’t do?

But I told them: You still have to take the high road, and you can only do that with the grace of God.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.