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Sex abuse report lists beloved priests, and Pennsylvania churches reel

The Rev. John David Crowley of Pittsburgh was credibly accused of sexual abuse, including of a minor.
The Rev. John David Crowley of Pittsburgh was credibly accused of sexual abuse, including of a minor.(SAM HODGSOn/New York Times)

PITTSBURGH — Everything felt normal until the news alert popped up on Cindy Depretis’ cellphone Tuesday afternoon.

It was a link to a list of the hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania accused of abusing children in a bombshell grand jury report. She scrolled to the names of priests near Pittsburgh.

“I got to the C’s,” she recalled tearfully as she sat in her office at Holy Angels Parish. Friends started to text her. “Is that our Father Crowley?” She could only force out one word: yes.

The Rev. John David Crowley for decades had been the hero of Holy Angels, a white clapboard church in southeast Pittsburgh, tucked below the bypass, by the old narrow-gauge railroad running along the creek.

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He was the pastor there for nearly 34 years, known as one of the most popular priests in the region. Then, in 2003, he abruptly retired.

Last week, the church learned why: Crowley had been accused of sexual abuse, including of a minor, and the claim was found to be credible and substantiated.

The bishop of Pittsburgh at the time, Donald Wuerl, now cardinal archbishop of Washington, gave Crowley the choice to voluntarily retire and quit active ministry, or face removal.

Crowley chose retirement. The families of Holy Angels were kept in the dark. They even protested his departure on his way out.

Across the country last week, Catholics reeled from the news that Pennsylvania priests had abused more than 1,000 children over decades, and that bishops largely hid their crimes from the public.

In the Pittsburgh diocese, which had almost a third of the state’s accused priests, Catholics in nearly every parish tried to figure out if the pastors they knew had ever been accused, or had known, of allegations they kept secret.

Some of the names on the list were no surprise, as some priests had faced public criminal proceedings and were removed from ministry. Other priests had been the subject of rumors. But many, like Crowley, had died before their actions were publicly revealed.

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As national anger has boiled over, and as the Vatican insisted to victims that Pope Francis was on their side and dioceses rolled out crisis communications playbooks, the families of Holy Angels have grappled with what to do.

When asked about Crowley outside the church this past week, parishioner after parishioner struggled to respond.

A man leaned on the railing of the church steps and cried as he remembered how Crowley had baptized his children. Women confided that they had been tossing and turning every night, unable to sleep. After long silences, many insisted the allegations just had to be false.

The Rev. Robert J. Ahlin, the current pastor, sat motionless in his suspenders at the parish house the day after the report was released. When he arrived to take over after Crowley left, he remembered getting some calls from parishioners wary of the official line that he had retired because of his age and health.

“You always hear rumors,” Ahlin, 74, said. “No one at the time said, ‘Father did so-and-so, he was removed.’ Whether they had suspicions or not, I don’t know.”

A few minutes later, Ahlin decided to read the grand jury’s findings for the first time. He silently pulled up Page 631 of the massive report, where Crowley’s case was recorded: A mother and her twin adult daughters, one of whom was 16 at the time of victimization, brought a complaint against Crowley in 1992 and again in late 2001.

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Later, an adult man reported that Crowley had sexually abused him when he was 11 to 12 years old.

In the summer of 1992, a mother and her adult twin daughters came forward and said Crowley abused them, one of whom was 16 at the time, according to the report. The Pittsburgh diocese told The New York Times the abuse occurred in 1976.

Three months later, Crowley was sent for a mental health evaluation at St. Michael’s Community. Evaluators “opined that Crowley was being truthful in his denials” and recommended that he have “outpatient therapeutic support to address insecurities, low self-esteem and obsessive-compulsive tendencies,” the report said.

He returned to his parish.

Two years later, the church surprised him with a large outdoor party under a tent to celebrate his 40th year as a priest.

In 2001, the mother and her daughters again brought their complaint to the diocese.

It wasn’t until the next year, amid the outcry over the Boston Catholic sex abuse scandal and coverup, that the diocese referred the allegation to the Allegheny County district attorney, and to the church’s review board. By then, the statute of limitations had long expired.

“The Independent Review Board found the allegation credible and recommended that Father Crowley either be allowed to retire without faculties or, if he refused, that a canonical trial be commenced,” the Pittsburgh diocese said in a statement to The Times.

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Wuerl allowed Crowley to tell his parish that he was voluntarily accepting an early retirement because he was two years shy of 75, the age when priests voluntarily offer to resign, according to the grand jury report.

“This was permitted, according to Wuerl, to ‘protect his [Crowley’s] reputation in the widespread community,’ ” it states.