Diocese tells Wilkinsburg parish of 1980s abuse claim

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Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has written to parishioners at St. James Parish in Wilkinsburg, informing them of a sex abuse allegation from the 1980s against a former priest, John Wellinger, who was removed from ministry in 1995.

Wellinger of Clairton was 66 when he died in 2011. The letter, sent Friday, said the diocese had an allegation that Wellinger "abused a member of the parish" when he was there from June 1981 to July 1985. The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said the allegation was sexual abuse of a minor.

The bishop urged parishioners to call either the diocesan or Pennsylvania victim assistance hotline "if you or a loved one were harmed in any way by Father Wellinger."

Diocesan officials first heard the allegation Nov. 9 from the sister of the victim, Father Lengwin said. She lived out of state but called to say that, before his death in August, her brother told her that Wellinger had molested him.

She declined an invitation to meet with diocese officials and a request for her to arrange a meeting with her parents went unfulfilled, Father Lengwin said. Because of the family's hesitancy, he said, diocesan officials didn't know if they were ready to go public and decided not to write to parishioners at that time.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., confirmed that the diocese reported the allegation to the district attorney's office in early November.

In 1995, Wellinger was on a leave of absence due to alcoholism when he was accused of having molested an 11-year-old boy six years earlier in West Mifflin, according to Father Lengwin, and he never returned to ministry.

In 2004 that allegation was at the center of a lawsuit accusing the diocese of conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse of minors. In 2007, acting Bishop Paul Bradley settled the suit, which included accusations from 32 people against 17 priests, for $1.25 million. The diocese denied any cover-up, but said it would rather spend the money to help victims than to pay lawyers.

Because of Wellinger's history, Father Lengwin said, diocesan officials had no reason to doubt the St. James allegation.

In asking to meet with family members, "We aren't looking to challenge them," he said. "This provides an opportunity to show our pastoral concern to people who are hurting and to help them perhaps recall more details that could help us find out if other people were involved."

On March 25, he said, the victim's brother contacted the diocese. "The brother's intention was to go public with it, so we decided to send a letter at that point," Father Lengwin said.

Although Wellinger was at nine parishes, the letter was sent only to St. James. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement criticizing the diocese for not writing to all of the parishes. SNAP believes that every diocese should post a public list of all priests ever credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor.

In other cases, letters have gone to every parish a priest had served, said Robert Lockwood, the Pittsburgh diocese's director of communications. "It depends on the circumstances," he said of where to send letters. "The accusations against him have been public and well known for many years."

Ordained in 1970, Wellinger also served at St. Wendelin in Carrick and St. Athanasius in West View, while leaving the diocese twice to study or teach. After St. James he was at St. Clare, Clairton, and Our Lady of Grace, Scott. His only pastorate was at Holy Spirit, West Mifflin, 1987-91.

He took a six-month health leave in 1991, during which he lived at St. Francis de Sales, McKees Rocks. He was at St. George, Allentown, 1992-94.

In February 1994 he was assigned to St. Philip in Crafton. While there he was arrested for drunk driving and sent for treatment of alcoholism to the St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md. He was in St. Luke from Sept. 5, 1994, to March 27, 1995, but was not allowed to return to ministry even though he was listed at St. Philip until June 1995, Father Lengwin said. He was still on leave in September 1995 when he was accused of molesting the child six years before.

He was permanently banned from wearing clerical garb, calling himself "Father," celebrating Mass in public or in any way identifying himself as a legitimate Catholic priest, Father Lengwin said.

A lawsuit filed in 2004 claimed Wellinger remained in ministry because diocesan records said he was "withdrawn from ministry" in March 2003.

Diocesan officials said that was a technicality, resulting from a review of all past abuse cases. Wellinger had been on "personal leave" since 1995 and his status was changed to "administrative leave" but there was no practical difference. Wellinger was later declared "withdrawn from ministry," diocesan officials said.

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published April 11, 2013 12:00 AM


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