Then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl helped convince the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests who had sexually abused minors.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH CATHOLIC Then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl helped convince the nation’s Catholic bishops in 2002 to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests who had sexually abused minors.

Media coverage following the recent release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report “does not accurately reflect” Cardinal Donald Wuerl and the Church’s efforts to protect young people, said a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania who worked closely with then-Pittsburgh Bishop Wuerl on that diocese’s child protection efforts.

“What I can say with complete confidence is the following: I believe Cardinal Wuerl to be a committed man of God with unquestioned compassion and commitment to young people,” said Frederick W. Thieman, the former U.S. Attorney. “My opinion of the man is based upon a decade of working with him in a number of capacities. The media coverage I have seen does not accurately reflect the person I came to know over that time.”

Then-Bishop Wuerl led the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1988 until 2006 when he was named archbishop of Washington.

Thieman – who is currently the Henry Buhl, Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership and former president of the Buhl Foundation, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest multi-purpose foundations – was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 to serve as U.S Attorney for Western Pennsylvania. During his four years in office, he oversaw an office of 42 attorneys and was instrumental in establishing a youth crime prevention effort in that state’s Allegheny County. He also served on the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s child protection lay review board.

“The grand jury report sheds light on a story that needed to be told,” Thieman said in an e-mail interview with the Catholic Standard. “It does, however, focus on what happened decades ago rather than changes in practice that I have seen and been involved with over the past two decades. That story is quite different than the shocking stories that have unfolded.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro made public the grand jury report on Aug. 14. The 18-month investigation into Church records from the past 70 years found that about 300 priests from the Pennsylvania dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – abused about 1,000 minors.

“I do think shedding light on the abuses of the past can prevent a repeat of these horrible tragedies,” Thieman said. “It is much more important to prevent abuse than simply to expose it. From my experience, there has been a dedicated effort in recent decades to prevent, expose and remedy abuse of young people.”

The report also alleged that several of the state’s bishops – including then-Bishop Wuerl and current Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik– covered up reports of clergy abuse of minors. Shapiro also alleged a Church hierarchy cover-up of the abuse at the press conference when he released the report.

“The attorney general is entitled to his opinion. I do not share that opinion, nor is it consistent with the facts, or these two men (Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Zubik), that I have worked with and come to know over the past two decades,” Thieman said.

Thieman added that “the two bishops I have worked with in Pittsburgh, and the efforts they have taken over the past two decades, and in which I have been involved, present a picture much different than the horror stories of earlier decades.”

“While one might argue that they (Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Zubik) should have moved up a learning curve faster, from what I have seen, they did in fact learn from the mistakes of the past and were out front and committed to making sure that children were protected and that those culpable in any type of abuse were dealt with quickly and in a manner that protected and supported the victims,” he said.

Thieman joined the Diocese of Pittsburgh lay review board at the invitation of then-Bishop Wuerl, who in 1988, the year he became Pittsburgh’s bishop, established the first diocesan review board on child protection issues in the United States. The attorney, who noted that he is not a Catholic, said he wondered about the request for him to serve on the committee that reviewed allegations of abuse lodged against priests.

“I questioned my appointment since I was not a Catholic,” Thieman said. “But Bishop Wuerl responded that he did not want a Catholic as much as someone who understood the importance of protecting young people and (who) had the experience to consider the evidence presented in a fair and objective manner.”

He said that while serving on the lay review board, “I have participated in approximately 15 hearings over the years and all but one or two resulted in a finding that there was a credible allegation of abuse. In each instance, the priest was removed.”

“I found the entire process to be fair and extremely sensitive to victims. Never once did I feel that a particular outcome was expected,” Thieman added. “The threshold to bring a case to the board in my mind was very low and every effort was made to give voice to the victims.”

Thieman said he also worked with then-Bishop Wuerl on projects outside of Church-sponsored efforts. He said that when he took office as U.S. Attorney in 1993, youth crime had peaked and “the nature and extent of the violence was shocking… it was clear that a community-wide effort was necessary to combat the violence.”

He noted that in addition to prosecuting the youth responsible for crime, “it was equally important to provide opportunity and resources so that youth had meaningful alternatives to a life of crime.”

“Community leaders from all sections of the region came together to advocate for more meaningful opportunities to support youth … Bishop Wuerl became a voice of that effort and indeed was the most committed member and advocate of this effort and the importance of caring for young people,” Thieman said.

He said then-Bishop Wuerl “led efforts to begin a mentoring program and after-school safe places which are still in existence today… (and) was also in the lead in creating a foundation that has supported thousands of youth from at-risk neighborhoods to attend private schooling.”

“The mentoring organization specifically recognized then-Bishop Wuerl as a mentor for the entire community and a leader in lifting up the importance – in fact, the obligation – to support our youth,” Thieman said.