George Zirwas as a young priest in 1981 (left) and later in Cuba.EXPAND
George Zirwas as a young priest in 1981 (left) and later in Cuba.
Miami New Times Archive Photo

South Florida Priest Murdered in Cuba Outed as Part of Pennsylvania Child Porn Ring

The utterly bizarre and horrid tale of Pennsylvania-turned-Florida-turned-Cuban priest George Zirwas has taken an even darker turn this week. More than 15 years ago, New Times published a meticulously reported feature delving into Zirwas' 2001 murder in Havana, where he was injected in the neck with an overdose of muscle relaxant. The story noted that some people claimed he was involved in a child pornography ring and that boys had accused him of molestation. But in 2003, when the story was published, Zirwas' defenders denied the allegations.

But now, an explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report into rampant rape and pedophilia inside that state's Catholic churches has confirmed the rumors: The report, released earlier this week, outlines how Zirwas and a group of other Pennsylvania priests "used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims" and routinely filmed and photographed child pornography with boys on church property.

After being repeatedly accused of molesting children, Zirwas took two "leaves of absence" from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. His second "sabbatical," in 1995, became a permanent move after he left for Miami, fled to Cuba, and was then killed in Havana in 2001 for reasons that were never revealed. New Times reported in 2003 that Zirwas was living off a church pension in Havana and, while claiming to be helping the poor and needy, was also an active member of Havana's gay scene.

The story is the second prominent tie between the horrific grand jury report and South Florida: Earlier this week, the Sun Sentinel reported that former Allentown Monsignor Thomas Benestad had moved to Boca Raton's Ascension Catholic Church years after he was accused of forcing a 9-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him before washing the boy's mouth out with holy water. The grand jury report says that other, unnamed victims had also filed complaints against Benestad, but the priest denies he ever acted inappropriately with minors.

Zirwas' story is equally upsetting but far more surreal. As the Philadelphia Inquirer first reported earlier this week, the grand jury report states that, during the 1970s, Zirwas was involved in a Pittsburgh child porn ring that filmed its victims on church grounds. The report states that a group of older clergymen brought Zirwas into the ring when he was just a young priest.

In one instance in the mid-'70s, the report says, Zirwas took a young boy named George to meet with Revs. Francis Pucci, Richard Zula, and Francis Luddy, who instructed the child to strip nude and pose for Polaroid photographs on a bed in Munhall, Pennsylvania.

The report also says Zirwas and the other men would give their child victims "gifts," including large gold cross necklaces. A photo of one of Zirwas' gift crosses is attached to the report:

One of Zirwas' so-called gifts for his child victims.
One of Zirwas' so-called gifts for his child victims.
Pennsylvania Grand Jury

In 1988, the three other priests in Zirwas' ring were charged with sexually assaulting two altar boys. But multiple victims later said Zirwas, who escaped charges, also abused them as children. The report states the Diocese of Pittsburgh became aware of complaints against him as early as 1987, when the parents of a "little boy" met with the diocese to report that Zirwas had "inappropriately touched" the child. In February 1988, the report says, another "young man" reported that Zirwas had engaged in "unwanted sexual contact" with the victim. (In that instance, Zirwas admitted he touched the victim but claimed the boy had asked Zirwas to massage his legs.)

In November 1988, Zirwas was accused twice: First, a mother reported that he gave her 16-year-old son alcohol and then fondled the boy's genitals. Another victim reported that Zirwas had groped him when he was 17.

In the meantime, Zirwas constantly evaded punishment. The grand jury found that he was repeatedly sent to Catholic "institutes" for counseling but that the cases were never reported to police. Zirwas continued to preach the entire time, and in June 1991, yet another victim came forward and said Zirwas had groped the boy's feet, calves, thighs, and penis.

"The victim informed the Diocese that he was too embarrassed to speak publicly regarding the abuse or go to court," the grand jury report states.

From there, Zirwas was transferred around the diocese numerous times before taking his first "personal leave of absence" in 1994. In July 1995, he requested a transfer to Miami to escape "false rumors being spread about him."

Zirwas also threatened to sue the diocese for alerting some parishioners that he had been accused of molestation. In 1995, then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl allowed Zirwas to return to the priesthood — but in November of that year, yet another victim said Zirwas had performed oral sex on him when the boy was 15 years old. Zirwas took his second, and final, leave of absence and moved to Fort Lauderdale. Yet another victim came forward in 1996.

Little is known about Zirwas' final days in South Florida and Cuba, and it's unclear if he preached while splitting time between the Miami area and Havana. But New Times in 2003 dug up some details: By the end of his life, Zirwas had reinvented himself as a local blogger living on Calle Mazón who went by the handle "El Juez" (the Judge). His acquaintances described him as well liked and surrounded by friends — indicating that news of his then-mysterious molestation allegations had perhaps not permeated Cuban society. Friends reported that Zirwas took same-sex lovers.

In hindsight, many of Zirwas' friends quoted at the time sound naive. One friend described Zirwas as acting "slutty" in Cuba, while another anonymous American friend said he was "into Lothario hairdresser types and twentysomething college gay boys." Another man, Osmany Perdomo, said, "George told me many times he didn't like young boys. He told me: 'Those are jailbait, the kind of boys you put in a closet and feed under the door until they grow up.'"

In 2001, Zirwas was found dead in his bed. Cuban authorities later convicted two men in the murder and sentenced one to die by firing squad. The men had also robbed his apartment and later confessed to killing two other men in similar fashion. Cuban media reports initially claimed Zirwas had been strangled to death, but those reports were later found to be untrue. The admitted killer was executed before explaining why he had targeted Zirwas, but many observers suspect the drug overdose was accidental and meant to merely incapacitate him.

Pennsylvania authorities also included a response to the scathing grand jury report. The diocese offered a "sincere apology" to George, the boy who said Zirwas had lured him into the pornography ring. And in something of a cruel understatement, the diocese said it wouldn't shelter a child predator like Zirwas again.

"Today, we would have handled the Zirwas case much differently," the report reads. "We would have immediately removed Zirwas from ministry and reported the allegation to the appropriate District Attorney."

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