‘Systematic Cover-Up’: Over 300 ‘Predator’ Priests Accused of Sexually Abusing Children in Pennsylvania
A bombshell grand-jury report on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church accuses hundreds of priests of preying on more than 1,000 children over several decades.
A harrowing, 1,356-page grand-jury report on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church was released Tuesday by the state Supreme Court, detailing decades of alleged abuse, sexual assault, and attempted cover-ups.
The numbers are simply staggering, as the historic report—which is the result of an 18-month investigation into six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses—lists more than 300 “predator priests” who are accused of preying on more than 1,000 victims over the last several decades.
“The pattern was abuse, deny, and cover up,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during a press conference, calling it a “systematic cover-up.” “It served a legal purpose. The longer they covered it up, the less chance there was that law enforcement could prosecute these predators.”
One of those alleged predators was Father George Zirwas, a priest at St. Adalbert’s on the South Side of Pittsburgh, who befriended a middle schooler, George, in the late 1970s.
George’s family encouraged the friendship, believing that Zirwas, whose first known assignment began in 1979, would be a “good influence” on their son. When Zirwas took George to meet with Father Francis Pucci, Father Richard Zula, and Father Francis Luddy, all of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, nothing seemed awry.
But that didn’t last long. At the rectory, the priests asked George to stand up on a bed and remove his shirt, then his pants—telling him that it would make his pose more consistent with that of Christ in a loincloth, the report says. They started taking pictures, then told him to take off his underwear, according to the grand jury. George, nervous, complied.
He wasn’t alone. When George testified in front of a grand jury decades later, he said that the photos taken of him were only part of a collection of pornographic pictures taken and shared by an “insidious pedophile community” of priests in the Pittsburgh area. He knew who else was involved, he said, because the priests gave golden crosses to groom their “favored” boys.
The grand jury noted that these crosses served a second purpose: “They were a visible designation that these children were victims of sexual abuse. They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization.”
In 1988, Zula, Pucci, and another church official were charged with sexually assaulting two altar boys. Zula pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. Pucci walked free: The statute of limitations had expired.
This wasn’t Zirwas’ only alleged crime. Beginning in 1987, the Diocese of Pittsburgh received a series of complaints: One mother claimed Zirwas had given her 16-year-old son alcohol and touched his genitals, another victim reported that Zirwas performed oral sex on him. Yet he was allowed to continue serving, and was merely shuffled to parish after parish, allegedly leaving victim after victim in his wake.
George’s story is one of the many detailed in the damning report, which also found 41 predators in Erie, where Father Chester Gawronski allegedly fondled young boys while telling them it was a “cancer check.” That priest freely confessed to sexual abuse, confirming that there were at least 12 victims, Shapiro said during the Tuesday press conference. Even so, he was permitted to continue serving for another 15 years.
Thirty-seven predators were identified in Allentown, where a priest allegedly told church officials “please help me, I sexually molested a boy.” The officials concluded in a memo that “the experience will not be a horrendous trauma for the victim,” the report says.
Another Allentown priest, who was accused of beating a child with a cross, sexually abusing a 13-year-old, and abusing one other child, voluntarily left the ministry and received a recommendation for the next job he sought—at Disney World.
Twenty offenders were found in Greensburg, where a priest allegedly impregnated a 17-year-old girl, forged a marriage certificate, then “divorced the girl months later”—and was allowed to continue serving. He was permitted to stay in the ministry until officials found a “benevolent bishop” who would take him, the report says.
There were another 59 predators discovered in Scranton, where a priest raped a young girl and arranged for her abortion, and 45 in Harrisburg, where a priest allegedly molested five sisters in the same family, according to the report. One of his victims was only 18 months old, Shapiro said. In the same diocese, Father James Beeman allegedly forced a 7-year-old girl to give him oral sex in the hospital, after she had her tonsils removed. He continued raping her until she was 19, the report claims.
Ninety-nine offenders were located in Pittsburgh, where George was allegedly forced to pose naked as Christ. The report is highly critical of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the current archbishop of Washington and former bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese. While he alerted the Vatican to some of the abuse, he’s also accused of repeatedly transferring known offenders to other dioceses.
“There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale,” the report reads. “For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
And everywhere it happened, Shapiro said, officials tried to cover it up. Almost all of the abuse was documented in “secret files” that the bishops had access to, he added, and many cases were reported directly to church officials. “The church showed a complete disdain for victims,” he said.
As early as November 1987, the report claims, church officials were made aware of the abuse perpetrated by Father William Presley, of the Erie Diocese. At the time, Presley was accused of assaulting two minors: one, as recently as 1986; the other dated back to 1971.
Between February and May of the following year, many church officials were allegedly made aware of the behavior, including Bishop Michael Murphy. They agreed that Presley was “extremely violent” and “predisposed to assaultive behavior,” the report says. They suggested that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which he refused. In 1990, he was given a temporary assignment at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sykesville, which eventually became permanent. The allegations of sexual abuse weren’t reported.
Following the landmark 2002 Boston Globe story about priest reassignment, three more victims told Bishop Donald Trautman that Presley sexually abused them. When Trautman called Presley that April, he admitted to all three crimes, the report says. But when asked by the media the following year about Presley, Trautman allegedly attributed the claims to one accuser, and said that he had “no information to provide on other possible allegations against the priest.”
The church investigated in the years that followed, and found multiple other instances of sexual abuse. But rather than share these findings with authorities, Trautman neglected to explore further charges and turned to the Vatican, formally requesting Presley’s removal in 2006. In his request, he wrote that Presley “is a violent man” with “all the classic signs of a hardcore predator,” the report says.
Trautman did not inform the district attorney of any charges until July 13, 2006, 19 years after the first allegations emerged. He told the district attorney that “We were unaware of these allegations until they came to light only a few years ago. As a result, no criminal charges were ever brought forward because the statute of limitations had expired.”
That, the report alleges, was a lie. The truth, the grand jury wrote, was that “Murphy, Trautman, and the Diocese of Erie intentionally waited out the statute of limitations and curbed their own investigation to prevent finding additional victims.”
The church’s alleged attempts at a cover-up didn’t just apply to the abuse claims. The grand jury report was originally scheduled for release in June. But as The Daily Beast reported previously, yet-unidentified parties worked behind the scenes for months to delay the information becoming public.
“These petitioners, and for some time some of the diocese, tried to prevent some of the report from ever seeing the light of day,” Shapiro said. “They tried to cover up the cover up.”
The maneuvering began in late May, when representatives from each of the six diocese received an advanced copy of the report. Soon after, a group of individuals who were “named but not indicted in the report” sought evidentiary hearings that would delay its release, claiming that “the reputation interest of the non-indicted named persons will be harmed by the release of the report.”
Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III initially denied their motion, writing that “the Commonwealth’s substantial interest in preventing child abuse” preempted the filers’ calls for due process. But someone—either those petitioners, or another party who was similarly denied—appealed the case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.
There, they succeeded. On June 21, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a stay on the report, postponing its release indefinitely. The move stunned and disheartened survivors of clerical sexual abuse, including Pennsylvania House Rep. Mark Rozzi.
“My jaw just dropped. I was in my seat, and the only thing I could do was just walk right off the floor because I could feel myself starting to get very emotional,” Rozzi told The Daily Beast that day.
Rozzi had been sexually abused by his own priest as a child. Decades later, he campaigned on the promise of bringing similar abusers to justice.
The bishops from all six diocese have denied filing the stay, or acting in any way to prevent the report’s release. The Supreme Court later announced that the names of the individuals who filed the motion would be redacted temporarily from the report, and that they would have the opportunity to challenge its findings in court on September 26.
“My office is not satisfied with the release of a redacted report,” Shapiro said Tuesday. “Every redaction represents an incomplete story of abuse that deserves to be told.”
Prior to Tuesday’s release, only two church officials had been arrested in conjunction with the grand jury investigation. The first was Reverend John Sweeney, of the Greenburg Diocese, who was accused of forcing a 10-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him between 1991 and 1992. Shapiro noted that his office would have pursued more charges against Sweeney if the statute of limitations had not expired.
The other was Father David Pouslen, who served in the Erie Diocese. Poulsen was charged this May with with indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children, and corruption of minors in relation to his alleged abuse of an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old.
Pouslen and Sweeney will be some of the very few that will face justice as a result of this report.
“Due to the church’s manipulation of our weak laws in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said, “too many predators were out of reach.” He was referring to the fact that the statute of limitations has already expired for the vast majority of these alleged crimes.
But while he lamented that “we can’t charge most of the culprits,” Shapiro outlined four reforms that the grand jury has recommended, including eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children. Under current state law, a victim of child abuse can report that abuse up to age 30. Rozzi, amongst others, are currently campaigning to raise that age to 50.
The 23 members of the grand jury, who reviewed more than half a million pages of documents to bring these crimes to light, shared Shapiro’s disappointment.
“We are not satisfied by the few charges we can bring, which represent only a tiny percentage of all the child abusers we saw,” the report says. “We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated. This report is our only recourse. We are going to name their names, and describe what they did—both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”