Pilarczyk led the archdiocese for 27 years and was the nation’s longest-serving bishop when he retired in 2009. His final years leading the region’s Catholic congregation included a public struggle with widespread allegations of clergy abuse.
Pilarczyk’s life in the church began as a Catholic schoolboy in his hometown of Dayton, where classmates knew him as the bright, witty kid who “never got in trouble with the nuns.”
Decades later, as a priest and bishop, Pilarczyk became a leader of the American church and held some of its most prestigious jobs, including president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Archbishop Pilarczyk was recognized as one of the outstanding churchmen of his time,” said Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, his successor in Cincinnati. “He unselfishly devoted his entire priesthood to this archdiocese.”
Despite his achievements, Pilarczyk’s tenure as the leader of the archdiocese was a challenging time for him, his church and the region’s half-million Catholics.
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Pilarczyk, like most of his fellow bishops, dealt with a worsening shortage of priests, parish closures, budget cuts and the clergy abuse scandal, which angered and divided Catholics across the country.
The abuse crisis, in particular, took a toll on the church and the leaders who had failed to protect children for decades. The crisis culminated locally in 2003, when Pilarczyk stood in a Cincinnati courtroom as a judge convicted the archdiocese of failing to report sexual abuse. It was the first time a Catholic institution in the United States had been convicted of such a crime.
Dozens of children were abused by as many as 30 priests in the archdiocese, according to Bishop Accountability, which tracks abuse cases nationwide. Court records and other documents showed church officials failed to publicly disclose allegations against priests and, in some cases, moved them from parish to parish after allegations arose.
“He protected the reputation of the church and his priests and himself,” said Dan Frondorf, a Cincinnati man who was abused by a priest as a child and later became active in advocacy groups for abuse survivors. “He failed to act in the best interest of children.”