Pope crit­i­cized for prais­ing D.C. car­di­nal as he ac­cepts his res­ig­na­tion


NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Amid un­fold­ing sex-abuse scan­dals, Pope Fran­cis has ac­cepted the res­ig­na­tion of Car­di­nal Don­ald Wuerl as arch­bishop of Wash­ing­ton. But the pope’s gen­tle words and lack of con­dem­na­tion an­gered those who feel top Catholic lead­ers con­tinue to shirk re­spon­si­bil­ity for the global cri­sis.

Among those frus­trated by the pope’s an­nounce­ment Fri­day was Penn­syl­va­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro, who over­saw a grand jury re­port is­sued in Au­gust on ram­pant sex abuse in six Penn­syl­va­nia dio­ce­ses. The re­port ac­cused Wuerl of help­ing to pro­tect some child-mo­lest­ing priests while he was bishop of Pitts­burgh from 1988 to 2006.

“It is un­ac­cept­able that then Bishop Wuerl ... over­saw and par­tic­i­pated in the sys­tem­atic cover-up that he did when lead­ing the Pitts­burgh Dio­cese and that he is now able to re­tire seem­ingly with no con­se­quences for his ac­tions,” Shapiro said. “We can’t rely on the church to fix it­self.”

Shapiro spoke at a news con­fer­ence af­ter urg­ing the state Se­nate to pass leg­is­la­tion al­low­ing sex-abuse vic­tims to sue in old cases they now can’t pur­sue be­cause of the statute of lim­i­ta­tions.

Wuerl had of­fered his res­ig­na­tion as arch­bishop in late 2015, af­ter he turned 75. Pope Fran­cis ac­cepted the of­fer Fri­day but asked Wuerl to stay on tem­po­rar­ily un­til a re­place­ment is found and sug­gested he had un­fairly be­come a scape­goat and vic­tim of the mount­ing out­rage over the abuse scan­dal.

“You have suf­fi­cient el­e­ments to jus­tify your ac­tions and dis­tin­guish be­tween what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with prob­lems, and to com­mit some mis­takes,” Fran­cis wrote to Wuerl. “How­ever, your no­bil­ity has led you not to choose this way of de­fense. Of this I am proud and thank you.”

Wuerl, who turns 78 in Novem­ber, ini­tially played down the grand jury re­port and de­fended his own record, but even­tu­ally con­cluded he should no longer lead the arch­dio­cese.

“The Holy Fa­ther’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide new lead­er­ship to the arch­dio­cese can al­low all of the faith­ful — clergy, re­li­gious and lay — to fo­cus on heal­ing and the fu­ture,” Wuerl said in a state­ment Fri­day. “Once again for any past er­rors in judg­ment, I apol­o­gize and ask for par­don.”

With the res­ig­na­tion, Wuerl be­comes the most prom­i­nent Catholic to lose his job since his pre­de­ces­sor as Wash­ing­ton arch­bishop, Theodore McCar­rick, was forced to re­sign as car­di­nal this year over al­le­ga­tions he sex­u­ally abused at least two mi­nors and adult sem­i­nar­i­ans.

Wuerl, even as he drew crit­i­cism in the Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury re­port, also faced wide­spread skep­ti­cism over his in­sis­tence that he knew noth­ing about years of al­leged sex­ual mis­con­duct by McCar­rick.

Wuerl was named promi­nently in the 11page de­nun­ci­a­tion of an al­leged McCar­rick coverup that was writ­ten by the Vat­i­can’s for­mer am­bas­sador to the U.S., Arch­bishop Carlo Maria Vigano. He ac­cused a long line of U.S. and Vat­i­can church­men of turn­ing a blind eye to McCar­rick’s pen­chant for sleep­ing with sem­i­nar­i­ans.

Fran­cis’ praise for Wuerl alarmed ad­vo­cates for abuse sur­vivors, who said it was ev­i­dence of the cler­i­cal cul­ture Fran­cis him­self de­nounces in which the church hi­er­ar­chy con­sis­tently pro­tects its own.

The pope “needs to fire and pub­licly ad­mon­ish any bishop that has en­abled per­pe­tra­tors by con­ceal­ing their crimes from law en­force­ment and the pub­lic,” said Becky Ianni of SNAP, a net­work of abuse sur­vivors.

Barry Knestout, who was in­stalled as bishop of Rich­mond in Jan­uary, pre­vi­ously worked in the Arch­dio­cese of Wash­ing­ton and had served as a top aide to Wuerl for the past decade, ac­cord­ing to a De­cem­ber 2017 ar­ti­cle in the Catholic Vir­ginian, a news­pa­per run by the Dio­cese of Rich­mond.

Knestout also served as priest sec­re­tary and sched­uler for McCar­rick in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

In a pub­lic let­ter re­leased July 30, Knestout said that dur­ing one of his as­sign­ments with McCar­rick, he spent most of his time serv­ing an­other car­di­nal, and that dur­ing his sec­ond as­sign­ment, “McCar­rick trav­eled fre­quently.”

“Through­out my time in Wash­ing­ton, I can tell you I was not ap­proached by any­one with al­le­ga­tions or ev­i­dence of sex­ual ha­rass­ment or abuse in­volv­ing the Car­di­nal,” Knestout wrote in the let­ter.

Wuerl has not been charged with any wrong­do­ing but was named nu­mer­ous times in the grand jury re­port, which de­tails in­stances in which he al­lowed priests ac­cused of mis­con­duct to be re­as­signed or re­in­stated.

In one case cited in the re­port, Wuerl — act­ing on a doc­tor’s rec­om­men­da­tion — en­abled the Rev. Wil­liam O’Mal­ley to re­turn to ac­tive min­istry in 1998 de­spite al­le­ga­tions of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own ad­mis­sion that he was sex­u­ally in­ter­ested in ado­les­cents. Years later, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, six more peo­ple al­leged that they were sex­u­ally as­saulted by O’Mal­ley, in some cases af­ter he had been re­in­stated.

In an­other case, Wuerl re­turned a priest to ac­tive min­istry in 1995 de­spite hav­ing re­ceived mul­ti­ple com­plaints that the priest, the Rev. George Zir­was, had mo­lested boys in the late 1980s.

Wuerl’s de­fend­ers have cited a case that sur­faced in 1988, when a 19-yearold for­mer sem­i­nar­ian, Tim Bendig, filed a law­suit ac­cus­ing a priest, An­thony Cipolla, of mo­lest­ing him. Wuerl ini­tially ques­tioned Bendig’s ac­count but later ac­cepted it and moved to oust Cipolla from the priest­hood. The Vat­i­can’s high­est court or­dered Wuerl to re­store Cipolla to priestly min­istry, but Wuerl re­sisted and, af­ter two years of le­gal pro­ce­dures, pre­vailed in pre­vent­ing Cipolla’s re­turn.

Wuerl’s arch­dio­cese is­sued a se­ries of plau­dits Fri­day, co­in­cid­ing with the Vat­i­can an­nounce­ment. They in­cluded a let­ter from the arch­dioce­san chan­cel­lor, Kim Vitti Fiorentino, who lamented that Wuerl’s “pi­o­neer­ing lead­er­ship in the en­hance­ment, im­ple­men­ta­tion and en­force­ment of his­tor­i­cally in­no­va­tive child pro­tec­tion poli­cies was over­shad­owed by the [Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury] re­port’s flaws and its in­ter­pre­ta­tion by the me­dia.”

In a let­ter to the Wash­ing­ton faith­ful, which Wuerl asked to be read aloud at Mass this week­end, the car­di­nal ad­dressed sur­vivors of abuse.

“I am sorry and ask for heal­ing for all those who were so deeply wounded at the hands of the church’s min­is­ters,” he wrote. “I also beg for­give­ness on be­half of church lead­er­ship from the vic­tims who were again wounded when they saw these priests and bish­ops both moved and pro­moted.”


Car­di­nal Don­ald Wuerl, for­mer arch­bishop of Wash­ing­ton, has been ac­cused of help­ing abusers.


Penn­syl­va­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro (right) ap­pealed to leg­is­la­tors to change state law so that civil cases can be pur­sued in decades-old clergy abuse cases.

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