CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who guided southwest Ohio’s Catholics through some of the church’s most trying times, died Sunday in Cincinnati. He was 85.
Pilarczyk, who had been in declining health for years, led the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for more than a quarter century and was the nation’s longest-serving bishop when he retired in 2009. His final years in the top job came as the church struggled 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.
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.
Pilarczyk, who was not charged with wrongdoing himself, later acknowledged the difficulty of those days and admitted he and his predecessors made mistakes in their oversight of accused abusers.
“Before the Lord and His people, I want to say that I regret what happened,” he said in his final homily before retirement. “I made some inadequate decisions and people got hurt and I’m sorry.”
The abuse crisis was Pilarczyk’s greatest challenge, but it wasn’t the only one. Tight budgets, parish mergers and the seventh largest Catholic school district in the country all were his responsibility.
Friends say he tackled the job with vigor, as well as with administrative skill and a cool-under-pressure demeanor that served him well.
Even a ruptured brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1988 kept him away for only about eight weeks.
Sister Sharon Euart, the former executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, said she saw that dedication and skill in action when she served with Pilarczyk as general secretary at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
She said he was a no-nonsense guy who was more interested in finding practical solutions than in talking about problems for hours at a business meeting.
“People always teased him about how quickly he could get through an agenda,” Euart said.
Rev. Terrance Schneider, Pilarczyk’s administrative assistant from 1985 to 1992, said that softer side of the archbishop often was overshadowed by the disciplined intellectual most people saw.
“It’s not that his heart was a weakness,” Schneider said. “It’s that his mind was a strength.”
Praying for the best, planning for worst