What Did Cardinal Wuerl Know About an Alleged Abuser, and How Did He Respond?

Did the cardinal, who served as Pittsburgh’s bishop from 1988-2006, know about serial abuser Ernest Paone’s past when he endorsed the priest’s continued ministry?

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl (photo: CNA file photo)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl and the Diocese of Pittsburgh say that when the former Pittsburgh bishop approved the transfer of a priest accused of serial sexual abuse, he was unaware of the allegations made against the priest. The transfer is described in the Aug. 14 report issued by a Pennsylvania grand jury charged with investing clerical sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses.

Father Ernest Paone was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1957. The grand jury reports that Father Paone served in five parishes in the first nine years of his ministry, and that he was accused of sexually molesting boys during that time period.

In 1964, a criminal investigation into allegations against Father Paone was halted by a Pennsylvania district attorney, “in order to halt bad publicity,” according to records presented by the grand jury.

The priest was without assignment for about a year, and in 1966 he was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the diocese “for reasons bound up with your psychological and physical health as well as your spiritual well-being.”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh does not dispute that timeline, or the fact that allegations of sexual abuse were made against Father Paone, who died in 2012.

After being granted a leave of absence, Father Paone relocated to southern California. In 1968, he requested that the Diocese of Pittsburgh recommend him to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for priestly faculties; a letter from the chancellor of the diocese came in response, asserting that Father Paone was on a “legitimate leave of absence” from Pittsburgh and there were “no objections” to his being given faculties by Los Angeles.

During this time, and for the rest of his life, Father Paone remained incardinated in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and, wherever he went, remained under the authority of Pittsburgh’s bishop.

In 1975, Father Paone requested another letter from the Pittsburgh Diocese attesting to his suitability as a priest. The diocese issued a letter, addressed “To whom it may concern,” that Father Paone was a priest in “good standing” of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The grand jury notes that almost no paperwork relating to Father Paone exists from the time of Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua’s term as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1983-1987, suggesting that the priest was effectively forgotten about, and allowed to continue in ministry “in good standing,” while living and working in California. The priest eventually moved to San Diego and became a public school teacher, while remaining a “priest in good standing” certified by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and continuing to serve in parish ministry.

In its official response submitted to the grand jury, the Diocese of Pittsburgh did not contest that narrative, saying that, “No one still involved with the Diocese of Pittsburgh is able to speak to the thinking or decision-making of the diocesan leadership 50 years ago.”

In question is whether Cardinal Wuerl, who served as Pittsburgh’s bishop from 1988-2006, knew about Father Paone’s past when he endorsed the priest’s continued ministry.

In 1991 Paone wrote to the Diocese of Pittsburgh requesting permission to move to Nevada, which was then covered by the single Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas. The request was granted and Bishop Wuerl gave no report to Reno-Las Vegas of the priest’s past.

But sources close to Cardinal Wuerl told CNA that in 1991, the bishop had no idea of the allegations that had been made against Father Paone.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s statement said, “At that time, neither Bishop Wuerl nor anyone in the Clergy Office was aware of Paone’s file and the allegations lodged against him in the 1960s.”

“Because he had been outside of the Diocese for nearly 30 years, Paone’s files were not located in the usual clergy personnel file cabinet” and were not found at the time, the diocese said

In 1994, however, the Diocese of Pittsburgh exhibited full knowledge of Father Paone’s history of allegations. In that year, a new accusation that Father Paone committed sexual abuse in the 1960s was made in Pittsburgh, and the matter was brought to Bishop Wuerl’s attention.

According to the grand jury report, Bishop Wuerl was then briefed by Father David Zubik, then the director of the Office of Clergy, on past allegations against the priest, and told of “questions about Paone’s emotional and physical health [which] were raised as early as the 1950’s, while he was still in seminary.”

The report claims that “Zubik further advised [Wuerl] of Paone’s various assignments and correspondence over the years, before also describing the multiple records documenting the diocese’s knowledge of his sexual abuse of children as early as 1962.”

Both the grand jury and the Diocese of Pittsburgh agree that Bishop Wuerl wrote to the Dioceses of Los Angeles, Reno-Nevada and San Diego — where Father Paone had lived and worked as a priest — informing them of the newly made allegations.

The grand jury report asserts that “Wuerl did not report the more detailed information contained within Diocesan records. The Diocese did not recall Paone; nor did it suspend his faculties as a priest.”

The diocese states that “Wuerl sent letters notifying the relevant Dioceses in California and Nevada of the 1994 complaint. Specifically, on August 26, 1994, Wuerl wrote to the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas saying that had he known in 1991 of the allegations, he would not have supported Paone’s request for a priestly assignment.”

CNA obtained a copy of Bishop Wuerl’s letter to Bishop Daniel Walsh of Reno-Las Vegas. In the letter, he wrote that he had “only [just] become aware of this matter” and wished to inform the bishop.

However, Bishop Wuerl’s letter only disclosed the allegation made against Father Paone in 1994, and did not acknowledge the prior allegations and concerns contained in the priest’s file. Although the Diocese of Pittsburgh claimed that Bishop Wuerl’s letter acknowledged more than one allegation of misconduct, in the text reviewed by CNA, Bishop Wuerl wrote only that if he had “been aware of this allegation in Father Paone’s past I would not have supported his request for a priestly assignment in your diocese.”

Bishop Wuerl’s letter also made clear that he knew Father Paone had, by this point, returned to California and, while he wrote that the priest had been “invited to meet and examine the situation” with Father Zubik, the current bishop of Pittsburgh, there is no indication that his faculties as a priest had been revoked.

Instead, Father Paone was sent for a period of “assessment” at the St. Luke’s Institute, a center for psychological screening, testing and therapy for clergy and religious.

By 1996 he was back in San Diego, and apparently continuing to serve in occasional priestly ministry.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh says that it informed the Diocese of San Diego that Father Paone’s faculties as a priest had been removed in a Jan. 30, 1996, letter. However, the grand jury report says that the Diocese of San Diego was not informed that Father Paone’s priestly faculties had been removed until 2002, the year the Boston sex abuse scandal broke, and does not make mention of a January 1996 letter.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.

Whether Bishop Wuerl removed Father Paone’s faculties in 1996 or 2002, or both, it was not until 2003 — following another allegation from the 1960s — that the future cardinal accepted Father Paone’s “resignation from ministry.”

According to the grand jury report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh received a final complaint in 2006, alleging that Paone, now laicized, had been assisting at confessions for adolescents and asking the young people “inappropriate questions.”