Prelate accused of abuse cover-up resigns
Pope draws criticism for citing ‘nobility’ of cardinal’s action
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, a moment many victims of clerical abuse had hoped would demonstrate his commitment to holding bishops accountable for mismanaging cases of sexual misconduct.
But instead of making an example of 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 Wuerl’s “nobility” in volunteering to resign and announced that the 77year-old prelate would stay on as the archdiocese’s caretaker until the appointment of a successor.
In an interview, 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.
For some Catholics, Friday’s decision was a deep disappointment on an issue that has shadowed Francis’s papacy and threatened his legacy.
After he became pope in 2013, Francis appointed a commission to advise him on safeguarding children from abuse, agreed to create a tribunal to try negligent bishops and spoke of “zero tolerance” for offending priests.
But critics say Francis has been more talk than action. By making it clear he thought Wuerl had served the church well, they said, Francis sent yet another mixed message on a topic that has shaken faith in the church’s leadership around the world.
“It doesn’t sound like the pope has gone far enough at all,” said Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a national group that advocates for abuse victims and church accountability. “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.”
Edward McFadden, a spokesman for 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.”
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.
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,” Wuerl said.
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.”