John S. Hoehl, accused of molesting students at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden while a priest and headmaster there decades ago, has had his ties to the priesthood officially severed by the Vatican. The move is a formality, since Hoehl resigned from ministry in 1988 after Bishop Donald Wuerl told him he would never receive another assignment. But it is the most the church can do to distance an ordained man from the priesthood.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responding to a request from the diocese, issued the ruling June 16 and the diocese received it Sept. 10.
"It is a welcome step, and it legitimizes further the complaints of the seven people we represent," said Alan Perer, attorney for seven of Hoehl's accusers, including three brothers.
But Paul J. Dorsch of Harmony, who filed the first suit regarding Hoehl in 2001, said it doesn't protect potential victims in West Virginia, where Hoehl is a counselor. Calls to Hoehl's office were not returned.
"The best thing they could do is keep them in the priesthood so at least they know where they are and what they're up to," Dorsch said.
According to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the diocese lost contact with Hoehl after he resigned in 1988, and was never contacted by any of his prospective employers. They can't announce that he's a sex offender because he was never arrested, tried or convicted, Lengwin said.
"Our role is not to determine whether someone has committed a crime, but whether they are suitable for ministry," he said.
"Certainly most people have indicated that those [abusers] who are in ministry should be removed immediately. We wouldn't remove someone from ministry unless we thought the allegations had credibility."
In April 2001 the Vatican removed canonical obstacles to involuntary laicizations in cases that were "public and egregrious," said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, chief canon lawyer for the diocese. Soon afterward, diocesan officials reviewed local cases to see if any qualified, and Hoehl's emerged.
Although it took a long time to compile the case and obtain a ruling, work began before events in Boston ignited a media furor about abusive priests, he said.
According to Lengwin, the diocese received its first allegation against Hoehl in the spring of 1986, months after a transfer from Quigley, where he had served for 14 years, to the former Bishop Boyle High School in Homestead. Then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua sent him to a treatment center in Canada, which recommended a "limited" assignment. Bevilacqua gave him an administrative job with the diocese, Lengwin said.
After Wuerl became bishop, he followed a therapist's recommendation to give Hoehl more pastoral duties by making him chaplain at Shadyside Hospital in July 1988, Lengwin said. But two months later Wuerl met the victims of three other priests and decided that no priest who had sexually abused a minor would serve as a priest in his diocese, Lengwin said. In November 1988 Wuerl informed Hoehl that he was banned from ministry and from presenting himself as a priest. Hoehl resigned the next month.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416