A former Roman Catholic priest who was at the center of one of the most high-profile sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Pittsburgh died of cardiac arrest late last month when he was involved in a one-car accident in Warren, Ohio, where he was residing.
Anthony Cipolla, 73, was found dead at the scene of the Aug. 30 accident, in which his car struck a tree, according to reports by Warren police and the Trumbull County, Ohio, coroner’s office. The cause of death was listed as probable cardiac arrhythmia due to heart disease, according to the coroner.
In the 1990s, Mr. Cipolla’s case drew international attention when it led to a standoff between then-Bishop Donald Wuerl — now archbishop of Washington, D.C. — and a Vatican court.
In 1988, Bishop Wuerl removed Mr. Cipolla from ministry after the priest was accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a boy who was between the ages of 12 and 17.
Mr. Cipolla appealed to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court. In 1993, that court ordered Bishop Wuerl to return the priest to ministry.
Bishop Wuerl instead sought reconsideration of the case, saying the tribunal’s decision did not show awareness of crucial facts — such as the existence of the lawsuit as well as of Mr. Cipolla’s 1978 arrest for allegedly molesting another boy.
That boy’s mother dropped the 1978 charges before they went to trial, and in a sworn deposition in the 1988 case, she said she did so under pressure from then-Bishop Vincent Leonard and others.
Mr. Cipolla always maintained his innocence, and a search of court records and news archives gives no indication he was ever charged or convicted.
Nevertheless, in 1995, the Supreme Tribunal reversed its earlier ruling and upheld Mr. Cipolla’s ban from ministry. The case gave greater leeway for bishops to remove alleged abusers on mental health grounds, a landmark precedent until it was superseded by U.S. bishops’ 2002 adoption of a ban on all credibly accused abusers following the exposure of widespread cover-up in Boston and elsewhere.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh issued statements several times in those years clarifying that Mr. Cipolla, who continued to minister publicly, was in fact not in good standing. In 2002, the Vatican removed him from the status of priesthood.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh declined Monday to comment on Mr. Cipolla’s death. “Certainly we pray for his soul,” said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, its spokesman.
Timothy Bendig, who filed the 1988 lawsuit that was later settled with the church, said he was saddened by news of Mr. Cipolla’s death, particularly under its circumstances.
“I’ve never been a grudge-holder toward him or the church,” he said when reached by the Post-Gazette. “I don’t wish death on anyone, even the perpetrator who molested me.”
Mr. Cipolla received a Catholic funeral Wednesday at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Aliquippa. Survivors include several siblings, nieces and nephews. Darroch Memorial Chapel of Aliquippa, which handled arrangements, said the family would decline a request for comment.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.