Cardinal Donald Wuerl defends response to claims ahead of Pa. priest abuse report

Last Updated Aug 23, 2018 4:47 PM EDT

A highly anticipated grand jury report detailing alleged abuses by hundreds of Catholic priests across Pennsylvania is set to be released today. The first statewide report will reveal accusations against more than 300 so-called "predator priests" and reported efforts by church leaders to cover them up.

The former bishop of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is expected to come under intense scrutiny for how he handled more than two dozen abuse cases. Wuerl created support programs for survivors and adopted a zero tolerance policy against abusive priests. With just hours to go until the grand jury report is released, Wuerl maintains his response to the abuse cases in the Pittsburgh diocese were appropriate.

"If there were allegations, we dealt with them immediately," Wuerl told CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste.

He believes the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation will vindicate the reforms he championed in 2002 to rid the Catholic Church of abusive priests.

"About a third of the people accused in this report are from the Pittsburgh diocese. Some people have called for your resignation. Do you have any plans to resign?" Battiste asked.

"It goes back over 70 years. So I think we have to be realistic and say this claim goes back over decades and decades," Wuerl responded.

"Did you ever move priests quietly to another?" Battiste asked. 

"That wasn't – that wasn't our process," Wuerl said.

In 2007, after Wuerl became archbishop of Washington, the Pittsburgh diocese he led agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle lawsuits filed by 35 abuse survivors.

"How does it feel knowing children were sexually abused at the hands of priests under your watch?" Battiste asked.

"Well, that's why if that came to light, we moved to remove that priest," Wuerl said, adding, "We're very, very sorry this happened. And that's why we've taken the steps to see that it doesn't go on."

"What are the steps? Because I think a lot of victims will say we've heard this before… almost more than a decade ago," Battiste said.

"Now we have that charter in place which provides for all kinds of background checks," Wuerl said.

Last month, the man Wuerl succeeded in Washington, Theodore McCarrick, was suspended by Pope Francis after accusations he sexually abused altar boys and adult seminarians decades ago. Wuerl told us he wasn't aware of rumors that McCarrick was having relationships with other priests.

"Do you think, right now, today, children are being abused at the hands of priests in the Catholic Church?" Battiste asked.

"I'm not sure that there's any way you can guarantee that there won't ever be a failure in the life of any priest going into the future," Wuerl said. "You can't do more than give your very best to try to eradicate a problem."

The Pittsburgh diocese and the five others under investigation have already received copies of the grand jury report. Wuerl told us he has not received it. Several survivors will be on hand Tuesday when the report is released to the wider public. They plan to meet with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who led the 18-month investigation.