PITTSBURGH — Everything felt normal until the news alert popped up on Cindy Depretis’s 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. 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.
This week, the church learned why: Father 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 a cardinal and the archbishop of Washington, gave Father Crowley the choice to voluntarily retire and quit active ministry, or face removal.
Father 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 this 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 Father Crowley, had died before their actions were publicly revealed.
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 Father Crowley at 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 Father 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 Father Crowley left, he remembered getting some calls from parishioners wary of the official line that he had chosen to retire.
“You always hear rumors,” Father 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, Father Ahlin decided to read the grand jury’s findings for the first time. He silently pulled up Page 631 of the massive report, where Father 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 Father Crowley in 1992 and again in late 2001.
Later, an adult man reported that Father Crowley had sexually abused him when he was 11 to 12 years old.
Father Ahlin looked up, unsure whether to believe the words he read. He wondered how, or even if, he would address the news from the pulpit on Sunday morning, and worried about how his parish would respond. No victim had ever approached him, he said. “It doesn’t seem like they pursued any criminal action,” he said. “It’s kind of, will we ever know?”
Then, Father Ahlin paged through the report for names of his other friends. He ticked off those he knew, reading each aloud, adding which allegations he thought were likely true, and which he believed were unsubstantiated. He reached more than 40 names before he fell silent.
Asked if he felt betrayed, Father Ahlin replied simply: “Did Jesus feel let down when Judas took off?”
After Father Crowley arrived at Holy Angels in 1969, his charisma drew so many people to Mass that they often had to stand outside on the steps, or even down in the streets, because the aisles inside were already full.
Word got around that if you were an unwed mother and your priest would not let you baptize your baby, or if you wanted to remarry but didn’t have the information to get an annulment, you could go to Father Crowley at Holy Angels in a Pittsburgh neighborhood called Hays. “Whatever came to the door, he tried to handle it,” Father Ahlin remembered.
When the parish school got too small to stay open, he bought a school bus to drive children himself to the new school each day.
In the summer of 1992, a mother and her adult twin daughters came forward and said Father 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, Father Crowley was sent for a weeklong 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.
People at Holy Angels like to tell a story of a summer flood in 2001, when heavy rain destroyed many homes in the area. Father Crowley sat on the church steps, watching the water rush through the streets, before turning the church into a hub for the community’s cleanup operations.
Around the same time, out of the spotlight, 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 cover-up, 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 this week.
At the time, Nicholas P. Cafardi, a former lawyer for the diocese, heard about the case from friends in the chancery, the diocese’s administrative center.
“He talked to some people in the parish about it,” Mr. Cafardi said in an interview. “They wanted to know if I’d be his canon lawyer in defending him.”
Mr. Cafardi declined, citing conflicts of interest. “Crowley denied all charges,” he said. “He thought he had been treated unfairly by the bishop.”
Bishop Wuerl allowed Father 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.
Father Crowley privately gave Bishop Wuerl his resignation. Five days later, Father Crowley told his congregation he had decided to retire, effective that week. The people of Holy Angels were so outraged to hear their pastor was leaving, and for no apparent reason, that they staged protests outside the church for weeks. They gathered 2,000 signatures supporting his reinstatement. Local papers covered shouting matches when Bishop Wuerl came to meet angry parishioners.
“We are of the opinion that Father Crowley and this congregation have been treated with disrespect by the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” protesters wrote in a document to the rest of their parish.
Some rationalized Father Crowley must have left because of his health, as he had diabetes. But others blamed Bishop Wuerl, believing he had forced Father Crowley out for his unorthodox sacramental practices.
A few months later, Father Crowley’s ministerial faculties were formally withdrawn. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s body that safeguards its faith and morals, confirmed that Father Crowley must remain in retirement and not exercise any public ministry.
In his final sermon on Jan. 12, 2003, Father Crowley offered words that now carry new meaning. “Thank you for entrusting your children to me,” he said. “I apologize if I have ever hurt you through neglect or not taking notice, or forgetfulness.”
A parishioner who wrote down the sermon, stored in a file at the parish, added his own reflection: “We have met Christ passing by.”
The church moved on. Father Crowley died in 2006. Holy Angels still keeps a folder of all the condolence letters from his funeral.
Then came the report this week. Parishioners found themselves frustrated by unanswered questions that challenged their strongest beliefs. Many are inclined to stick by the man they had long trusted, despite the sinful acts he has been accused of.
Cheryl DePretis, who has been coming to Holy Angels for more than 40 years, finally decided to read the report because she works as the church assistant, and she wanted to know how to answer calls that were coming in. “I didn’t see any proof,” she said. “I choose to remember him” — her voice trailed off.
The diocese, which had prepared for months for the report’s release, did not reach out to Holy Angels in advance. Some church leaders wish they had had more notice, if only to better prepare to help the traumatized congregation.
Joe Billock, a longtime parishioner and car salesman, had suspected some other priests he knew might be named in the report, like one from Charleroi, Pa., who he said had shown up at his shop once with pornographic magazines in his vehicle. He, too, had heard rumors about Father Crowley’s departure, but said none were related to sexual misconduct.
Still, the night before the grand jury report was to be released, Mr. Billock said he got a funny feeling. “I just said, ‘I bet you Father Crowley will be on the list,’” he said after Mass on Wednesday evening.
At the Holy Angels crochet circle on Thursday morning, women reflected on the awful week, for them and for the broader church. “I feel they shouldn’t have covered it up at the beginning,” said Eleanor Martin of the diocese’s handling of abuse cases as she made a pom-pom for a purple hat. “Had this come out 30 years ago, there’d not be as much of it.”
That same day, Father Ahlin got a call from a woman who identified herself as one of the victims, and who was distraught. “She felt this was putting her through all that pain again,” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard from her.”
Sunday’s services weighed heavily on his mind. “I’ve been thinking something has to be said,” Father Ahlin said. “But I can’t even formulate how to even approach it.”
A day earlier, he had questioned the allegations against Father Crowley. After the call, he said he was not sure if he would tell his congregation about his doubts.
“Given the way she expressed herself,” he said, “I’d have to believe what she said.”
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