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Priests ran child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese: state AG's grand jury report

David Gambacorta, Staff Writer

Updated: Wednesday, August 15, 2018, 5:18 AM

Richard Zula was among a handful of former Catholic priests accused by a state grand jury of participating in a child porn ring in the Pittsburgh area.

George said he never discussed the nude Polaroids, or the twisted, secret gifts he and the other kids had been given decades ago by the men who preyed on them. These weren’t the kinds of things you could share without feeling humiliated, especially if you grew up tough, like he did on the South Side of Pittsburgh.

The Rev. Robert Wolk, a Roman Catholic priest, is led from the courtroom by deputies after receiving a 5- to 10-year sentence from Judge George Ross for child molestation on April 3, 1990. Wolk voluntarily left the priesthood. Bill Levis/Post-Gazette
The Rev. Francis Pucci, a Roman Catholic Priest accused of sexual assault, in a January 1988 file photo. Bill Levis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Photo Gallery: Priests ran child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese: state AG's grand jury report

But you can’t outrun your nightmares forever. So on Dec. 17 — a week before Roman Catholics around the world celebrated Christmas — George met with a Pennsylvania grand jury and told it about the Rev. George Zirwas, a friendly young priest who once took him to a rectory in Munhall, a borough about 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, and introduced him to some friends: The Revs. Francis Pucci, Richard Zula, and Francis Luddy.

During a conversation about religious statues, the priests told George to get onto a bed and remove his shirt, and strike a pose like Jesus on the cross. Then they instructed him to strip off his pants and underwear, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

In the unnerving moments that followed, George claimed that Zula or Pucci began taking photos of him on a Polaroid camera. All of the priests giggled — and then added the photos of George to a collection of photos of other teen boys. According to the grand jury, these men and another priest, the Rev. Robert Wolk, were part of a “ring of predatory priests” who raped children, shared intelligence on potential victims, and manufactured child pornography in parishes and rectories.

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“This group of priests used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims,” reads one line of the nearly 900-page document, which outlines horrific abuse that occurred in Pittsburgh and five other Catholic dioceses across the state.

The Rev. Robert Wolk, a Roman Catholic priest, is led from the courtroom by deputies after receiving a 5- to 10-year sentence from Judge George Ross for child molestation on April 3, 1990. Wolk voluntarily left the priesthood.

The men gave a specific gift to children they favored, something they could wear that would mark them as prime targets for abuse. Zirwas “had told me that they, the priests, would give their boys, their altar boys, or their favorite boys these crosses,” George told the grand jury. “So he gave me a big gold cross to wear.”

He remembered the rectory photo session as a degrading experience. “It is still really hard to get it out there that you were in a room when you were 14 or 15 and getting naked pictures taken from priests,” he said.

Zirwas’ cohorts were all eventually exposed as child predators. Zula, Wolk, and Pucci were arrested in Allegheny County in 1988 on unrelated child sex-abuse charges.

According to Tuesday’s report, Zula “engaged in violent sexual activity” with a child at a rectory in the Pittsburgh Diocese. Church records further described parties Zula hosted for children that featured marijuana, alcohol, oral sex, attempted anal sex, and whips. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1990, and died last year.

Wolk was accused of sexually assaulting two adolescent brothers over a six-year period, pleaded guilty to involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, and was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. Charges against Pucci were dropped because a statute of limitations had expired. Both Wolk and Pucci left the priesthood, as did Luddy, who was sued by an abuse survivor in the 1990s.

The Rev. Francis Pucci, a Roman Catholic Priest accused of sexual assault, in a January 1988 file photo.

Zirwas met George in the 1970s, when the priest was assigned to St. Adalbert parish, where George had been an altar boy. Zirwas was in his 20s, and seemed to George’s family like a positive influence; he took the teen on trips and even taught him to drive. But twisted motives lurked behind his helpful persona, as other families in the Pittsburgh area would learn.

In 1987, the diocese was contacted by the family of “a little boy” who claimed he’d been inappropriately touched by Zirwas, the report details. Then-Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua refrained from taking action, but when another abuse complaint arrived a year later, Zirwas was sent for an evaluation. Still, he served at other parishes in the state until 1994, when he was placed on a leave for “personal reasons” as additional allegations swirled.

Zirwas was returned to active ministry by Bevilacqua’s successor, Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is now a cardinal in Washington. But Zirwas was benched again after another victim told the diocese that Zirwas had performed oral sex on him when he was 15.

“Today, we would have handled the Zirwas case much differently,” an attorney for the Pittsburgh Diocese wrote in a response to the grand jury report.

After being placed on leave for a second time, Zirwas moved to Florida and then fled to Cuba. In the spring of 2001 in Havana, at a property he reportedly shared with another person, Zirwas was found strangled. He was 47.

In a statement released Thursday, Wuerl lamented clergy abuse as a “terrible tragedy,” and argued that he acted with diligence and concern for sex-abuse victims when he was a bishop.

But he had struck a different tone in 2001, when he presided over Zirwas’ funeral in Pennsylvania. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl described Zirwas as a kind man who’d preached a message of salvation through faith in Jesus.

“A priest is a priest,” Wuerl said that day. “Once he is ordained, he’s a priest forever.”

David Gambacorta, Staff Writer

Read full story: Priests ran child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese: state AG's grand jury report

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