Catholic leaders attempt damage control in wake of Pennsylvania child sex abuse report

Two cardinals have backed out from the World Meeting of Families.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington and former bishop of Pittsburgh. CREDIT: Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington and former bishop of Pittsburgh. CREDIT: Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Fallout continues in the Catholic Church following a bombshell grand jury report documenting over a thousand instances of child sexual abuse from over 300 priests in Pennsylvania. While some Catholic leaders continue to downplay the significance of the allegations, others are canceling upcoming public appearances.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads up Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, announced earlier this week that he was canceling his trip to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, which will include a visit from Francis himself.

O’Malley claimed he will instead be focusing on investigations into alleged sexual misconduct at St. John’s Seminary in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston — completely separate from the Pennsylvania report.

O’Malley announced an inquiry into allegations made by former seminarians while they were enrolled at St. John’s. Calling the allegations “a source of serious concern to me as Archbishop of Boston,” O’Malley placed the seminary’s rector on “sabbatical leave” while the investigation is underway. Although the situation is independent from the Pennsylvania report, it is nevertheless conspicuous that the Pope’s point-person on investigating child sexual abuse in the Church is avoiding a high profile appearance in the wake of the report.


Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington also announced he was canceling his appearance at the Dublin conference, where he was expected to offer a keynote address. Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 and the grand jury report found that he granted requests to priests who’d been accused of abuse to be reassigned to other parishes or retire early. In a statement after the report was released, Wuerl insisted that the report “confirmed that he acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who now leads to the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese in Texas and serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, once served as a priest in the Pittsburgh area. Saturday night, he led a Mass at his old church, where he briefly addressed the report to a near-capacity crowd.

“We’re not just economic and NGO — we’re the church, and when we mess up, we mess up badly,” he said. “And so therefore, we have to rely on Jesus and then do the normal things that people have suggested,” which is to respond to the report with “grace and discipline.”

Current Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, who has served in that role since 2007, defended the Church’s actions in an interview Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week. Among his claims, Zubik said, “We have taken a position in the diocese of Pittsburgh since 2002 not to do any confidentiality agreements about whether the alleged abuse occurred.”

But Zubik himself has been under fire for such agreements. According to the report, in 2012, Zubik offered a victim money for college tuition for his children and for some counseling, but the man refused the offer because he would have had to agree not to talk about the abuse he endured. The report does not confirm whether there was a written confidentiality agreement in that case or not.


“I can honestly say that we have followed every step that we needed to follow to be responsible in our response to the victims,” Zubik insisted in the interview.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the world’s largest group for sexual abuse victims, has called on Zubik to resign. They are unconvinced by his claims not to have participated in any cover ups, calling him a “callous and dangerous outlier” compared to how other bishops have responded in the face of similar allegations. SNAP has also called on a boycott of donations to the Diocese of Pittsburgh until Zubik steps down or “takes proven steps that protect kids.”

A letter on behalf of Catholic theologians, educators, parishioners, and lay leaders calling on all U.S. Catholic bishops to collectively resign in the wake of the new allegations now has over 1,000 signatures. Chile’s 34 bishops similarly resigned en masse over a sexual abuse scandal in May.

“The catastrophic scale and historical magnitude of the abuse makes clear that this is not a case of ‘a few bad apples,’ but rather a radical systemic injustice manifested at every level of the Church,” the letter states. “Systemic sin cannot be ended through individual goodwill.”