Murdered in Havana

After the Catholic Church banished him, Cuba welcomed him. But the vibrant new life George Zirwas created for himself soon ended in tragic death.

A Pittsburgh television station aired "special reports" theorizing Zirwas may have been killed because some of his prolific e-mails had been critical of unjust and oppressive aspects of Cuban society. That notion briefly took flight among South Florida's Cuban exiles, but it wasn't true. Even though hard facts about the man and his death were scarce, the story was too intriguing, too puzzling -- too exotic -- to ignore. As one of his Internet acquaintances wrote: "George's murder has it all, really -- Catholic priests, a previous semi-covered-up sex scandal, Cuban rent boys, illegal travel, the Internet.... And all set in wonderful crazy Havana!"

After some months the talk died down. As if to protect his memory, most of Zirwas' family, friends, and former colleagues stopped speaking about him to outsiders. Internet gossip disappeared, as did a commemorative website featuring a photo of Zirwas superimposed upon a Cuban flag.

Polly Becker
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico

George Zirwas, a seminary classmate recounts, used to mockingly tell acquaintances he was from "Hooterville" -- in reality the town of McDonald, population 2,300, tucked into the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. This was coal-mining country until the '80s, when most of the mines closed down. Generations of Zirwas men, including George's father and brothers, worked as coal miners. But George was drawn to service work, inspired by his religious mother, a retired nurse. In 1974 he began theological studies at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh and completed training at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained in 1979. Over the next fifteen years the Pittsburgh diocese placed him in eight different parishes, all close to home.

Each of the ten other men in Zirwas' graduating class at Mount St. Mary's was contacted for this article, though only a few responded to inquiries. The sketchy picture of Zirwas that emerges from schoolmates' recollections is nevertheless consistent, reflecting an engaging, compassionate man who was at the same time an opinionated, conservative Catholic.

As far as Holly Zirwas McIntyre is concerned, her Uncle George was a normal, fun-loving guy who had been "a priest since before I remember." McIntyre is now the mother of four children, the three eldest of whom Zirwas knew and doted on. "I was his favorite [niece]," McIntyre recently said by phone from her residence at the Fort Benning, Georgia, Army base, from which her husband was deployed to Kuwait several months ago. "He was great. He put everybody else's feelings before his own. When my dad, his brother, was in the Persian Gulf [War], he helped my grandmother take care of me. He would take me shopping and out to lunch or to dinner. He'd pick up me and my friends and take us to movies."

McIntyre declined to reminisce further. Efforts to contact other family members were unsuccessful. Zirwas' friends in Havana who have communicated with the family believe his mother and brothers (his father died some 20 years ago) never knew or wanted to know about his sexual orientation. Yet homosexuality was the one inescapable determinant of his life and career, and finally his death.

The beginning of the end of Zirwas' career came in 1988, when three Pittsburgh-area priests were accused of sexually abusing two young brothers, former altar boys, over a period of years. Revs. Robert Wolk, Richard Zula, and Francis Pucci were Zirwas' friends, and he had been in the vicinity during at least one incident of abuse. When allegations first surfaced in 1987, the diocese removed the three priests from their parishes and sent two for psychiatric counseling, but initially kept the matter from law-enforcement authorities, as was common church practice before widespread sexual abuse by priests became an international scandal. In this early case, the victims and their family went to state prosecutors, who took Wolk and Zula to trial. Pucci escaped criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.

Zirwas' association with the accused priests was first revealed during Zula's trial. One of the victims testified that in 1984, when he was fifteen, Zula had rented a resort suite for a weekend in Somerset County, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Upon arriving, the victim related, he helped Zula unload snacks and whiskey from the car. Within a half-hour, Zirwas arrived in the company of two other boys. The youths Zirwas brought along left the suite to swim and play racquetball while Zula and his guest began drinking shots of whiskey and beer. Then he and Zula went into a bedroom and performed oral sex on each other. Zirwas remained alone in another room. That was the extent of the information about him that surfaced publicly.

Eventually Wolk spent a decade in prison; Zula received a lighter sentence after a plea bargain in which 138 counts of molestation were dropped. In 1989, six months after the convictions, Zirwas was transferred, and less than two years later he was reassigned again. He remained at St. Scholastica, outside Pittsburgh, until May 1994, moved again, and shortly thereafter requested a six-month leave of absence for personal reasons.

In July 1995 he was assigned to St. Maurice in suburban Forest Hills, but three months later took another leave. In February 1996 the Pittsburgh diocese placed him on administrative leave, the most severe discipline short of laicization (denial of any clerical status) that can be taken against a priest. Zirwas could no longer identify himself as a priest, wear the clerical collar, or publicly celebrate the sacraments. His name was expunged from the diocesan directory and the Official Catholic Directory of the United States. He did, however, continue to receive a pension and health insurance.

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