Pope Accepts Wuerl’s Resignation as Washington Archbishop, but Calls Him a Model Bishop
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, a moment many victims of clerical sexual abuse had hoped would demonstrate his commitment to holding accountable bishops who have mismanaged cases of sexual misconduct.
But instead of making an example of Cardinal Wuerl, who was named in a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report that accused church leaders of covering up abuse, Francis held him up as a model for the future unity of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope cited Cardinal Wuerl’s “nobility” and announced that the 77-year-old prelate would stay on as the archdiocese’s caretaker until the appointment of his successor.
In an interview, Cardinal Wuerl said that he would continue to live in Washington and that he expected to keep his position in Vatican offices that exert great influence, including one that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops.
Cardinal Wuerl had a reputation as a reformer before the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August detailed widespread clerical abuse over many decades. The report included accounts of Cardinal Wuerl’s poor handling of accusations against priests when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, mentioning his name more than 200 times.
The report said Cardinal Wuerl had relied on the advice of psychologists to permit priests accused of sexually abusing children to remain in the ministry.
The Archdiocese of Washington on Friday released a letter from Francis, saying that Cardinal Wuerl had sufficient evidence to “justify” his actions as a bishop and to “distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes.”
“However,” Francis’ letter added, “your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
By making it clear he thought Cardinal Wuerl had served the church well, Francis sent yet another mixed message to abuse survivors on an issue that has troubled his papacy and threatened his legacy.
Francis became pope in 2013, appointing a commission to advise him on safeguarding children, creating a tribunal to try negligent bishops and speaking of a “zero tolerance” policy for offending priests.
But critics say the pope has delivered more talk than action. Francis seemed to reveal a blind spot on the issue this year by initially defending Chilean bishops against accusations that they had covered up abuse. He later listened to the survivors, said he believed them and started removing bishops.
The erosion of Cardinal Wuerl’s standing was compounded by his association with his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Theodore E. McCarrick. He recently stepped down from the College of Cardinals over accusations that he had molested an altar boy decades ago and coerced seminary students to share his bed.
In an extraordinary letter released in August, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis of covering up inappropriate behavior by Cardinal McCarrick and called on the pope to resign.
In the weeks since, Francis has alluded to Archbishop Viganò’s letter, to which he has said he will not respond, by speaking of the devil’s role in trying to divide the church. He seemed to do so again in Friday’s letter, warning against the “sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.”
Francis saw Cardinal Wuerl as that shepherd, a force for unity. The cardinal’s Sept. 21 request that the pontiff accept his resignation reflected his dedication to “procure the good of the people entrusted to your care,” Francis wrote.
Cardinal Wuerl called the pope’s letter a “very, very beautiful” recognition of his effort to put his flock before himself, but added that the pope, in choosing his replacement, would select a bishop who began serving after the American church adopted new guidelines in 2002 to prevent and punish abuse.
He said he was “stepping aside to allow for new leadership that doesn’t have this baggage.”
Cardinal Wuerl had previously offered his resignation at age 75, as is customary in the church, but he was allowed to stay on in Washington, where he had served since 2006. In accepting his resignation now, Francis asked that Cardinal Wuerl remain as the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese.
Cardinal Wuerl, who is considered a moderate and a supporter of Francis’ style of papacy, spoke in the interview about the constructive role he hoped to play at the annual meeting of American bishops in Baltimore in Nov. “We are going to each be asked to speak our mind on what we think needs to be done,” he said.
And as a member of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Wuerl will still shape the American church for decades to come by helping to pick its bishops.
That situation — of resigning under a cloud while maintaining Vatican power and status — recalls what happened to former Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston. After resigning in disgrace as archbishop in 2002, Cardinal Law kept his position on the Congregation for Bishops for a while, then lived out his years in Rome, where he was warmly welcomed at Vatican ceremonies and given an important basilica in Rome as his titular church.
The allegations against Cardinal Wuerl are complicated, and they pale in comparison with the cover-up by Cardinal Law, who moved abusive priests from parish to parish, rather than dismissing them, enabling the abuse to continue.
In the interview, Cardinal Wuerl bristled at the mention of Cardinal Law’s name. “I really can’t get into a comparison like that because I’m not certain at all that I can be faulted with reassigning over and over again priests who abused,” he said.
Asked what message it sent that Francis had kept him in power in Washington despite public outcry for accountability, he said, “Stepping aside as archbishop is an enormous and very painful step for me.”
Edward McFadden, a spokesman for Cardinal Wuerl, said that during the cardinal’s 12 years in Washington, “not a single priest of the Archdiocese of Washington has faced a credible claim, and there is not today a single priest in ministry in Washington who has faced a credible claim.” And during the cardinal’s 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh, he said, “there were no cover-ups of claims of abuse.”
Cardinal Wuerl’s simultaneous resignation and rehabilitation by the pope is likely to enrage conservative Catholics who have been using the sexual abuse scandal to try to bring down prelates close to Francis. Cardinal Wuerl was known to be among those Francis consulted when choosing new bishops in the United States.
Cardinal Wuerl was first seen as a rising star in the Catholic hierarchy decades ago, when he appeared to risk his career to report an abuse case.
He arrived in Pittsburgh, a possible steppingstone to greater things, in 1988, just as the diocese had removed two priests accused of molesting altar boys. In his first months as bishop, after the priests were charged with more than 100 counts of abuse, he formed a review board at the diocese level. He also sought an extension to the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases in canon law.
In 1993, when John Paul II was pope, Bishop Wuerl traveled to Rome, where he successfully persuaded the Vatican to overturn a ruling reinstating an abusive priest.
But cases from that era ultimately forced him to resign.
Cardinal Wuerl initially tried to defend himself from charges in the Pennsylvania report, posting an online rebuttal on TheWuerlRecord.com that was quickly taken down after drawing criticism and ridicule. He gave an interview to a local television station, saying that the cases had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, before the church had developed clear policies on clergy sexual abuse.
“I think I did everything that I possibly could,” Cardinal Wuerl said in the television interview.
But it soon became clear that he would become the biggest target of outrage over the Pennsylvania report.
“The grand jury report showed that Cardinal Wuerl oversaw and participated in the cover-up,” the Pennsylvania attorney general, Josh Shapiro, said in an interview. “It is well documented.”
Calls for Cardinal Wuerl to resign began almost immediately. In Washington, as the archdiocese celebrated the opening of school in late August with a special Mass, a group of teachers marked the occasion by protesting and calling for Cardinal Wuerl’s removal.
At a “listening session” held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, one parishioner after another said publicly that he should step down, said Becky Ianni, leader of the Washington-area chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who attended the session.
“Wuerl to this day has not accepted his responsibility. He called what he did ‘errors in judgment,’ and that really bothered me,” she said in an interview.
Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a national group formed in 2002 to defend abuse survivors and advocate church reform, said, “It doesn’t sound like the pope has gone far enough at all. They’re removing him from this situation where people feel betrayed, but he’s still got all the power pretty much that he ever had. What we’re looking for is that these people are really held accountable.”
“I’m not saying that Cardinal Wuerl hasn’t done a lot of good in his life,” said Ms. Fox, a parishioner in the Washington archdiocese, “but in dealing with this, it has to be a stronger reaction from the Vatican, from the pope.”
Cardinal Wuerl said in the interview with The Times that he would miss his role in planning the future of the archdiocese, and that in his new role as administrator, “You just keep everything in place.”
“If I can take the focus off of myself, my mistakes, and focus, and help us focus on survivors, healing, the future, then that’s why I’m doing this,” he said of his resignation. “One of the needed things today is transparency and accountability. We have to get that into the regular way in which the church does business, does ministry.”