Priests with ties to Alle-Kiski Valley used ‘whips, violence and sadism,’ report says
Several priests named in a scathing grand jury report released Tuesday about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church served Alle-Kiski Valley parishes, including two clergy who allegedly were part of a “ring of predatory priests.”
The report identified 120 clergy in the Pittsburgh and Greensburg dioceses as “predator priests,” including six whose cases highlighted what the grand jury called institutional failure on the church’s part.
All three of the priests linked to institutional failure in the Pittsburgh diocese had ties to the Alle-Kiski Valley. One in the Greensburg diocese did.
The report said George Zirwas and Richard Zula, now deceased, were part of a “ring of predatory priests … who shared intelligence or information regarding victims as well as exchanging the victims amongst themselves (and) also manufactured child pornography on diocesan property.”
“This group of priests used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims,” the report said.
Zula was ordained in 1966 and assigned to six different parishes through 1987. The assignments included Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Natrona Heights (June 1971 to December 1973) and Tarentum’s St. Clement (June 1986 to September 1987), along with stints at parishes in New Castle, Munhall and Marianna.
He withdrew from the ministry in April 1996 and died in September 2017.
Zirwas was ordained in September 1979 and served as a priest in at least seven parishes through December 1994, when he was placed on a leave of absence for about eight months, according to the report.
The assignments included St. Bartholomew in Penn Hills (June 1989 to December 1991), St. Scholastica in Aspinwall (December 1991 to May 1994) and St. Joseph in Verona (May 1994 to December 1994), along with parishes in Pittsburgh’s Brookline and South Side neighborhoods, New Castle, Elizabeth.
Zirwas was then assigned to St. Maurice in Forest Hills in July 1995 and served there for four months before again being placed on leave, according to the report. He remained on leave until he died in May 2001, the report said.
In one case, the report said Zirwas, Zula and two other priests took a boy identified as George to the rectory of a Munhall parish and asked him to stand on a bed and remove his clothes as they discussed the image of Christ on the cross. Then they took Polaroid pictures of the boy. The alleged victim reported that the Polaroids were added to a collection of photos of other teenage boys.
The victim said the ring of predatory priests gave gifts to boys including gold cross necklaces.
“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,” the grand jury wrote.
‘Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever’
The report said the diocese first received complaints that Zirwas sexually abused children in October 1987. No action was taken by then-Bishop Anthony Bevilaqua or the diocese, the report said. At least five other alleged victims came forward in ensuing years.
Zirwas met with current Bishop David Zubik, then the director of clergy personnel, in July 1995 while on his first leave of absence to request permission to take an assignment in Miami because of what he called “false rumors about him,” the report said. The priest also threatened to take legal action against the diocese.
Former Bishop Donald Wuerl returned Zirwas to the ministry in July 1995, but he was placed back on leave later that year after the diocese received another complaint. When Wuerl presided over Zirwas’ 2001 funeral, the report recounted that the former bishop said “a priest is a priest. Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever.”
In September 1987, the diocese received a complaint that Zula “engaged in violent sexual activity” with a teen boy at the Sisters of St. Mary & Ann rectory in Marianna, where he had been assigned from May 1984 to June 1986. It involved three other adult men who were not priests.
Zula resigned from Tarentum’s St. Clement after those allegations surfaced and he was sent for treatment to the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.
An alleged victim told state police in late 1988 that Zula began sexually assaulting him in 1984 when the boy was under 16. The alleged victim said the abuse happened about once a week for three years and included oral sex, sadomasochistic behavior and attempts at anal sex.
Zula was ultimately charged with more than 130 counts related to child sexual abuse.
The report said that Wuerl authorized a confidential settlement in March 1989 between the diocese and the family of the victim and his brother. It included a $500,000 lump sum with a separate amount of $400,000 to be paid over 30 years.
By fall 1989, as Zula awaited sentencing after pleading guilty to two counts and new allegations continued coming in, a doctor retained by the diocese said the priest “would not likely be a person to initiate sexual activity,” and had engaged in admitted sexual activity only because the teen boy first suggested it, the report said.
“While Diocesan resources were being used in such a fashion, unknowing parishioners were still actively tithing from their income without knowledge that church funds were being used to mitigate a convicted sex offender’s sentence,” the report states.
The diocese gave Zula a check for $11,543 when he got out of prison, amounting to $500 for every month he spent locked up. It then provided him with monthly payments of up to $1,000 and medical coverage following his release even as it continued to receive reports that he sexually abused children, the report said.
A long history of abuse
Paone was ordained in 1957 and assigned to five area parishes over the next nine years, including Madonna of Jerusalem in Sharpsburg (May 1962 to May 1966) and ones in Aliquippa, Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood, McKees Rocks and the Wampum/Koppel area. The report said he was on a leave of absence from May 1966 to February 2001, but did ministry in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.
Allegations of abuse emerged early on.
He was serving at the now-shuttered St. Monica Church in Lawrence County’s Wampum in 1962 when the church’s pastor notified Bishop John Wright that he had interceded to prevent Paone’s arrest for “molesting young boys of the parish and the illegal use of guns with even younger parishioners,” according to the report.
After the diocese reassigned Paone to Sharpsburg, former Beaver County District Attorney Robert Masters sent a letter to Bishop Vincent Leonard saying he was halting investigations into abuse allegations surrounding Paone “to prevent unfavorable publicity.” Masters admitted that he wanted the diocese’s support for his political career, the report said.
Bishop Wright granted Paone a leave of absence in 1966, and Paone moved to Southern California but remained under the authority of the Pittsburgh diocese. He got permission to start serving in a Los Angeles church, and in 1975 received a letter stating he was “in good standing” with the diocese, the report said.
He served as pastor and heard confessions at another California parish and also taught in schools, according to the report.
Wuerl, who was bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese from 1988 to 2006, approved Paone’s transfer to Nevada in 1991, according to the report. Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, then a pastor in the Pittsburgh diocese, discussed allegations against Paone in confidential memos with Wuerl, the report said.
One from 1994 said questions had been raised about Paone’s emotional and physical health as early as the 1950s, when he was in seminary. It said the diocese’s knowledge of sexual abuse allegations dated to 1962, according to the report.
The Pittsburgh diocese placed Paone on administrative leave in 2002 after a Boston Globe report detailed the Catholic Church’s practice of reassignment priests accused of sexually abusing children. After more victims came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Paone, he resigned from the ministry in 2003 and he died in 2012.
New Kensington ties
In the Greensburg diocese, Robert Moslener served as a priest at New Kensington’s St. Joseph from 1975 to 1985, his longest assignment in 26 years with the diocese.
Moslener, who was ordained in May 1976 and served through 2002, also had assignments in Scottdale, North Huntingdon, Mt. Pleasant, Monessen, Blairsville, Maryland, Indiana County’s Iselin, Greensburg, Brady’s Bend and Yatesboro.
Internal diocesan documents said Moslener admitted to “inappropriate behavior” with a 15-year-old boy in 1979 and 1980. The diocese said Moslener’s actions “may well have represented an unacceptable yet understandable waystation on his path to more adult sexual integration.”
The grand jury cited allegations from at least five other victims. The last one came forward in 2013 and said Moslener abused him and his siblings when they were children, causing “irreversible damage.”
Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.Wesley Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wesley at 412-380-5676, [email protected] or via Twitter @wesventeicher.