Four priests in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh once groomed boys for sex, including one boy who was violently assaulted and made to pose nude on a bed as Christ.
Photographs were taken of that scene and later shared on church grounds. That child abuse was included in a statewide grand jury report made public Tuesday by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The priests’ “favorite boys” in that case were given gold crosses as gifts that marked them as having already been groomed for sex, Shapiro said at a news conference broadcast Tuesday on Facebook Live.
In all, 99 priests in the Pittsburgh diocese were identified as child predators in the more than 800-page report that culminated nearly two years of testimony. The report listed 301 predator priests in six dioceses in Pennsylvania and more that 1,000 child victims over the past seven decades, although the grand jury believes the real numbers are higher.
Shapiro alluded to a “systematic cover-up in Pennsylvania” by church officials.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said the diocese had no intention of covering up the abuse, although he is mentioned in the report.
“The report certainly does not indicate that I did anything that was covering up, and I can say personally that did not happen,” Zubik said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the diocese in Pittsburgh. “The intention was not cover up, and that’s why I can stand firm in myself to say that I’ve not been part of a cover up.”
Zubik, who became a priest 43 years ago, said he was disgusted by the things he read in the report.
“I feel betrayed,” he said. “The goal of my life as a priest and when I said ‘yes’ to becoming a priest, is that I was going to reflect the person of Jesus Christ. The fact that other people who said ‘yes’ did the things that are recounted in this report is a tragedy.”
In 1992, the then-Rev. David Zubik had a telephone conversation with a young man who accused the Rev. James R. Adams of sexually assaulting him in the 1970s when he was between 8 and 10 years old and attending St. Francis of Assisi in Finleyville, the report indicates. The boy accused Adams of touching his genitals while he was fully clothed as Adams drove groups of boys to outings. Zubik is now the bishop for the Pittsburgh diocese.
Adams was withdrawn from the church and sent to a Catholic community in St. Louis for evaluation and treatment. He left before completing the treatment, and he was eventually permanently removed from the priesthood.
“Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally,” the report states.
“But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all,” the report states.
The report found a pattern among the dioceses that was “like a playbook for concealing the truth.” The files were kept in a locked “secret archive,” and some of them were in cabinets just feet away from bishops’ desks. Only the bishops had the keys to the cabinets.
Shapiro said some of the files listed the activities as “horseplay, wrestling and inappropriate touching,” euphemisms for sexual assault. The report was also critical of sending priests for “evaluations” at church-run centers.
“It was none of these things,” Shapiro said. “It was child sexual abuse, rape committed by grown men.
“The men of God not only did nothing, but they hid it for decades.”
Zubik said the only two things in the secret archives kept in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are “the bishop’s last will and testament and the succession that would happen if the bishop dropped dead.”
Shapiro also said some priests were promoted after they became aware of the abuse allegations.
He noted former Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl is now a cardinal in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and Zubik is a bishop.
In a statement Tuesday, Wuerl said the abuse “is a terrible tragedy, and the church can never express enough (of) our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely.”
He said he believes the report confirms that “I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
Shapiro said “the circle of secrecy” in the church was not a phrase created by the FBI or grand jury.
“We got it from Bishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh. ... in one of the documents we reviewed; these were his own words for the church’s child sex abuse cover-up.”
The church responded to that allegation, stating the phrase was not in Wuerl’s handwriting and the investigation refused to “acknowledge the mistake.”
The church’s response to the report made it clear the context of the phrase meant the diocese would not tolerate secrecy and demanded transparency from “priests in question.”
During his news conference, Zubik defended Wuerl, saying he was “passionate” about ending child sex abuse and the diocese worked for 30 years to prevent abuse.
“I believe, because he was passionate about these kinds of things, he would not have done anything deliberately to cover up or make things seem what they were not,” Zubik said.
Zubik said at least 90 percent of all reported child sexual abuse by clergy in the Diocese of Pittsburgh occurred prior to 1990.
“The Diocese of Pittsburgh today is not the church that is described in the grand jury report. It has not been for a long time. Over the course of the last 30 years, we have made significant changes to how we prevent abuse and report allegations,” Zubik said.
He also said, “There is no priest or deacon in public ministry today in the Diocese of Pittsburgh with a substantiated allegation of child sexual abuse against him.”
One of the priests who was among the group that groomed boys for sex, the Rev. Richard Zula, was prosecuted in Washington County because the case involved “wild parties with drugs and alcohol” at Sts. Mary and Ann in Marianna.
Zula, of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, was charged in June 1989 with 140 counts of corrupting children and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. He pleaded guilty in Washington County Court in January 1990 and was sentenced to 2 ½ to 5 years in a state prison to run concurrently with a sentence in Somerset County.
Then-Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit personally handled the sentencing and noted, according to a transcript, Zula’s crimes followed “twenty years of good work performed by this defendant while he was a priest.”
The Revs. Francis L. Pucci and Zula were present when the naked boy was asked to pose as Jesus on a cross. Both men also served parishes in Washington County. Both have since died.
The investigation prompted four recommendations to state lawmakers, one of which involves removing the criminal statute of limitations for prosecuting the sexual abuse of children.
The others involved the creation of a window of opportunity for older victims to file civil suits for damages caused when they were children, clarifying the penalties for failure to report child abuse and prohibit nondisclosure to law enforcement agreements when the church settles a case with a victim.
Zubik said the diocese plans to bring in an expert on prevention of child sex abuse to review its practices and make recommendations. He said the diocese also hired someone to monitor clergy who have been removed due to sexual allegations.
Zubik promised to meet with and apologize to any victims.
“To those of you who have in any way been the victim of any abuse, sexual or otherwise, whether as a child or as an adult, or as a parent, or as a sibling, or as a friend who shared the pain of that someone you love – I ask you, the church asks you for forgiveness,” Zubik said.
Staff writers Barbara S. Miller, Linda Ritzer and Katie Anderson contributed to this report.