Vatican ac­cepts Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion

But pope lets embattled arch­bishop con­tinue some du­ties for now


Pope Fran­cis on Fri­day ac­cepted the res­ig­na­tion of Washington’s arch­bishop, Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl, a trusted pa­pal ally who be­came a sym­bol among many Catholics of what they re­gard as the church’s de­fen­sive and weak re­sponse to cler­i­cal sex abuse.

But even as Wuerl be­comes one of the high­est-pro­file prelates to step down in a year of prom­i­nent abuse scan­dals, the pope of­fered the cardinal a gen­tle land­ing, prais­ing him in a let­ter and al­low­ing him to stay on as the day-to-day ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Arch­dio­cese of Washington un­til a suc­ces­sor is found.

In his let­ter, Fran­cis said that Wuerl’s “no­bil­ity” had prompted him to step down, even though he had “suf­fi­cient el­e­ments” to jus­tify his ac­tions. “Of this, I am proud and thank you,” Fran­cis wrote.

The Vatican’s an­nounce­ment ended Wuerl’s 12-year ten­ure as arch­bishop of Washington and marked the most di­rect con­se­quence to date of a scald­ing Au­gust re­port from a Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury that de­picted decades of sys­temic sex­ual abuse within the church — some of it hap­pen­ing in Pitts­burgh, where Wuerl served as bishop. The 900-page re­port por­trayed Wuerl as be­ing in­con­sis­tent in his han­dling of sex­ual abuse. In the af­ter-

of the re­port’s re­lease, the metic­u­lous cleric — who once had a rep­u­ta­tion as a con­tro­versy-free re­former — faced mount­ing anger and calls for his res­ig­na­tion.

Some Catholics said Fri­day that Fran­cis — with his un­usual de­ci­sion to keep Wuerl in place on an in­terim ba­sis — was be­ing overly pro­tec­tive of an ally, over­look­ing the se­ri­ous­ness of the cardinal’s case and un­der­min­ing the pope’s own at­tempts to deal force­fully with the con­se­quences of abuse. More than five years af­ter be­com­ing pope, Fran­cis is con­fronting a wave of abuse-re­lated scan­dals that amount to the great­est cri­sis of his pa­pacy.

A Washington arch­dio­cese spokesper­son said that the 77year-old Wuerl will re­tain his place in the pow­er­ful Con­gre­ga­tion of Bish­ops, the sec­tion of the Ro­man Curia that helps pick the se­nior mem­bers of the clergy.

“It’s very dis­ap­point­ing,” said David Clo­hessy, the for­mer na­tional di­rec­tor of the Sur­vivors Net­work of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “This con­tin­ues a long, long pat­tern in the church hi­er­ar­chy — a re­fusal to ad­mit what is so clear to the rest of us. Wuerl is guilty of se­ri­ous wrong­do­ing.

“You can claim other bish­ops are even worse, and there is some truth to that,” Clo­hessy said. “But the sim­ple fact is that he en­dan­gered chil­dren.”

On Fri­day, the Arch­dio­cese of Washington’s chan­cel­lor and gen­eral coun­sel, Kim Viti Fiorentino, de­scribed Wuerl’s “coura­geous and sac­ri­fi­cial com­mit­ment” to the church in Washington and pushed back at the Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury’s find­ings.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the Cardinal’s pi­o­neer­ing lead­er­ship in the en­hance­ment, im­ple­men­ta­tion and en­force­ment of his­tor­i­cally in­no­va­tive and rig­or­ous child pro­tec­tion poli­cies was over­shad­owed by the re­port’s flaws and its in­ter­pre­ta­tion by me­dia,” said Fiorentino, who did not elab­o­rate on those crit­i­cisms.

In a let­ter re­leased Fri­day ad­dressed to the “broth­ers and sis­ters” of the arch­dio­cese, Wuerl wrote that new lead­er­ship was needed so the church could “be­gin to fo­cus on heal­ing and the fu­ture.”

“I am sorry and ask for heal­ing for all of those who were so deeply wounded at the hands of the Church’s min­is­ters,” Wuerl 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.”

Washington-area Catholics who had been protest­ing and call­ing for Wuerl’s ouster said the church must do more.

Jack Devlin helped or­ga­nize one of the more dra­matic dis­plays that Wuerl had lost sup­port, when more than 40 school­teach­ers stood out­side the an­nual back-toschool Mass at the Basil­ica of the Na­tional Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion and de­manded the arch­bishop’s res­ig­na­tion in­stead of en­ter­ing the cer­e­mony. Devlin was re­lieved to hear Fri­day’s news, but he said church lead­ers have a long way to go be­fore re­gain­ing his trust.

“When it comes to child abuse, this isn’t like, ‘Oops, I messed up.’ These are kids we’re talk­ing about,” the Catholic teacher said. “The way Pope Fran­cis worded it, it was how you’d word some­body mak­ing a lit­tle mis­take. This is not a lit­tle mis­take.”

The cardinal’s exit fol­lows a trio of blows this sum­mer that left Wuerl, known for his abil­ity to tightly con­trol mat­ters within his realm, con­fronting crit­ics at nearly ev­ery turn.

First came the June sus­pen­sion for child sex abuse of Cardinal Theodore McCar­rick, Wuerl’s pre­de­ces­sor as Washington’s arch­bishop, which quickly led Catholics to won­der what Wuerl knew. Then came the pub­lic re­lease of the grand jury re­port de­tail­ing clergy sex­ual abuse in six dio­ce­ses, which painted Wuerl as some­times stop­ping abu­sive priests and some­times guid­ing them right back into parishes dur­ing his 18 years as bishop of the Dio­cese of Pitts­burgh. Lastly, on Aug. 25, a for­mer Vatican am­bas­sador pub­lished a largely un­ver­i­fied let­ter on con­ser­va­tive Catholic web­sites ac­cus­ing Wuerl — along with Fran­cis and his pre­de­ces­sor, Pope Bene­dict XVI — of know­ing McCar­rick was dan­ger­ous but still al­low­ing him to func­tion as one of the church’s high­est cler­ics.

Josh Shapiro, the at­tor­ney gen­eral of Penn­syl­va­nia, whose of­fice re­leased the grand jury re­port in Au­gust, said that the re­port made clear that Wuerl “ac­tively en­gaged in the coverup.”

While Wuerl some­times han­dled cases well, Shapiro said dur­ing a meet­ing with mem­bers of The Washington Post ed­i­to­rial “this isn’t a bal­anc­ing act. . . . You don’t get a mul­li­gan when it comes to pass­ing preda­tor priests around.”

Wuerl has pushed back on the grand jury re­port, say­ing he did ev­ery­thing he could un­der the laws and norms of times past. In a pub­lic talk, he asked parish­ioners to for­give his “er­rors in judg­ment” while he was a bishop in Pitts­burgh. He also has de­nied know­ing of any al­le­ga­tions against McCar­rick be­fore June, when McCar­rick was sus­pended af­ter church of­fi­cials in New York found credible an al­le­ga­tion that he groped an al­tar boy decades ago.

Ni­cholas Ca­fardi, an orig­i­nal mem­ber and the for­mer chair of the U.S. bish­ops’ Na­tional Re­view Board for the Pro­tec­tion of Chil­dren and Young Peo­ple, said Fri­day that Wuerl had been given a jus­ti­fi­ably “gen­tle letdown.”

“I think part of the un­fair­ness is that he is be­ing judged by the stan­dards of 2018 for things he did 20 and 30 years ago,” Ca­fardi said. “He is not the bad ac­tor some may think he is, and los­ing his see is more than enough of a pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

But oth­ers said that the Vatican’s han­dling of Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion didn’t sit well.

San­dra Yocum, a re­li­giousstud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Day­ton, a Catholic col­lege, posited that Fran­cis came of age in a time when sex­ual abuse was not taken as se­ri­ously.

“We have come a long way in un­der­stand­ing its im­pact and its preva­lence,” she said. “Think about some­one who’s in their 80s. I know he’s pope and I know he’s a so­phis­ti­cated thinker,” but he is still strug­gling to han­dle the topic ap­pro­pri­ately, she said.

“I don’t know how they’re go­ing to re­gain cred­i­bil­ity,” Yocum said of the Amer­i­can bish­ops, “be­cause it re­ally re­quires a kind of re­form that I’m not sure they’re will­ing to em­brace.”

Fran­cis has been un­der fire this year, par­tic­u­larly since the let­ter re­leased by Arch­bishop Carlo Maria Vi­ganò, a for­mer Vatican am­bas­sador to the United States, who said he had told the pope about McCar­rick’s mis­con­duct with young men five years ago.

While hun­dreds of priestabusers have been re­moved in re­cent decades, the bish­ops and car­di­nals re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing them hardly ever are, and Catholics have been show­ing signs of be­ing fed up with the sta­tus quo. They have been openly out­raged, or­ga­niz­ing protests, de­mand­ing res­ig­na­tions and threat­en­ing to with­hold their money from the church.

Even so, it was a sur­pris­ing end­ing for Wuerl, who largely avoided con­tro­versy and pol­i­tics and rose to be­come a con­fi­dant of Pope Fran­cis. To his de­fend­ers and even to some gov­ern­ment prose­cu­tors who worked in the arena of sex abuse, Wuerl had been seen as a pioneer in the church on this topic — ad­vo­cat­ing in the 1980s for vic­tims’ rights and for trans­parency, and con­clud­ing that pe­math dophilia was not cur­able.

“It is ironic that one of the bish­ops who was bet­ter than most be­came the sym­bol of the fail­ures,” said John Carr, a for­mer em­ployee of the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops who now leads a cen­ter at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity.

Wuerl was 26 when he be­came a priest in 1966 in his home­town of Pitts­burgh. He rose quickly in the church, be­com­ing as­sis­tant to then-Bishop John Wright, who be­came a cardinal in Rome, giv­ing Wuerl en­tree to the Vatican at a young age.

In the late 1980s, he was plunged into church cul­ture wars — and earned a name as a com­pany man — when the Vatican sent him to Seat­tle to counter a lib­eral bishop named Ray­mond Hunt­board, hausen. The Vatican charged Hun­thausen, a peace ac­tivist, with be­ing lax in en­forc­ing church doc­trine in ev­ery­thing from mar­riage an­nul­ments and min­istry to LGBT Catholics to priest dis­ci­pline.

Af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the Vatican ap­pointed Wuerl in 1985 to be aux­il­iary bishop and had him take over many ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions from Hun­thausen. It was a con­tro­ver­sial move that led to Wuerl’s as­so­ci­a­tion with the more con­ser­va­tive wing of the church. But ex­perts on Wuerl and the U.S. church say he was more com­mit­ted to rules and bu­reau­cratic struc­tures than he was driven by a con­ser­va­tive ide­ol­ogy.

Hun­thausen’s author­ity was re­stored in the late 1980s, and Wuerl was sent back to Pitts­burgh as bishop. There, he main­tained his rep­u­ta­tion as a skilled ad­min­is­tra­tor and a be­hind-the-scenes bridge-builder.

While Wuerl was in Pitts­burgh, a priest named An­thony Cipolla was re­moved from the min­istry amid al­le­ga­tions that he had abused sev­eral boys. Cipolla ap­pealed, and in 1993 the Vatican de­manded that Wuerl re­in­state him. Wuerl re­fused, tak­ing the fight to the Vatican Supreme Court. He even­tu­ally won.

The Cipolla case set the pa­ram­e­ters for Wuerl’s early rep­u­ta­tion on the topic of abuse. Vic­tims praised him, and some hold the opin­ion that the church de­layed mak­ing Wuerl a cardinal as a pun­ish­ment for his will­ing­ness to chal­lenge the Vatican.

In 2006, he was in­stalled as arch­bishop of Washington, where he has been praised as a suc­cess­ful if emo­tion­ally dis­tant leader, pulling the arch­dio­cese’s fi­nances into bet­ter or­der, work­ing well with the city to shift some clos­ing Catholic schools into char­ter schools and host­ing the vis­its of two popes — Bene­dict in 2008 and Fran­cis in 2015.

Wuerl be­came known in Washington for hold­ing the mid­dle ground in a cul­ture bolt­ing to the ex­tremes. He agreed with the prac­tice of al­low­ing politi­cians who sup­port the right to abor­tion to re­ceive Com­mu­nion. He has also in­creas­ingly adopted Fran­cis’s wel­com­ing tone on gay is­sues, some­thing of a pub­lic shift on the is­sue af­ter he sev­ered ben­e­fits for un­mar­ried cou­ples who worked for the arch­dio­cese’s Catholic aid group in 2009 rather than of­fer­ing cov­er­age to same-sex cou­ples newly al­lowed to marry in the Dis­trict.

As a close ad­viser to Fran­cis, Wuerl has of­ten been painted by con­ser­va­tive Catholics as too lib­eral — some­one mak­ing ex­cuses for Fran­cis’s em­pha­sis on ac­cep­tance and wel­come rather than clar­i­fy­ing doc­tri­nal bound­aries.

In an in­ter­view with The Post in March, Wuerl said his most re­cent com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the Vatican said he was reap­pointed un­til he turned 80. He will be 78 on Nov. 12.

Asked what de­fines the Washington pe­riod of his ca­reer, Wuerl said then that it was partly stay­ing out of pol­i­tics. “I see my­self as a spir­i­tual leader, not some­one who is en­gaged in the po­lit­i­cal life,” he said.

Wuerl was also asked about crit­ics who say Fran­cis isn’t do­ing as much as he could on the topic of cler­i­cal sex abuse.

“I don’t see that. He’s been very clear, con­sis­tent. He’s put a com­mit­tee to­gether,” Wuerl said. He added that “it seems to me any time there is a glitch — for ex­am­ple when he says: ‘You know you need to have proof’ — it gets ex­ag­ger­ated. It gets in­serted into some story line that he’s not as com­mit­ted as he should be. I don’t see that story line as valid.”

“It is ironic that one of the bish­ops who was bet­ter than most be­came the sym­bol of the fail­ures.” John Carr, for­mer em­ployee of the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops

Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl



TOP: Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl, left, was at the side of Pope Fran­cis when the pon­tiff vis­ited St. Pa­trick’s Catholic Church in the Dis­trict in 2015. MID­DLE: At the Basil­ica of the Na­tional Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion in Fe­bru­ary, Wuerl blessed mark­ers hon­or­ing un­known slaves who were buried in ceme­ter­ies in the Arch­dio­cese of Washington. ABOVE: Wuerl’s name on a school near Pitts­burgh was de­faced in Au­gust; the school’s name later was of­fi­cially changed.

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