Life af­ter Wuerl: D.C. Catholics find lit­tle peace in arch­bishop’s fall.


They stood out­side Washington’s grand­est Catholic churches, shout­ing and singing and pray­ing while hold­ing posters de­mand­ing that the arch­bishop of Washington re­sign from his job as an ad­mis­sion of decades-old fail­ures to re­spond ad­e­quately to child sex­ual abuse.

Early Fri­day morn­ing, when the res­ig­na­tion they had hoped for was an­nounced, these Catholic ac­tivists weren’t sure how to feel.

“It’s a re­ally good thing. It’s a good thing,” said Win­nie Obike, who cre­ated a pe­ti­tion that drew thou­sands of sig­na­tures ask­ing Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl to step down be­cause of mis­han­dling abu­sive priests un­der his su­per­vi­sion. But the prob­lem, she said, is so much big­ger: “this East Coast Catholic cul­ture, which is mo­rally cor­rupt and needs sav­ing.”

Bob Cooke, who or­ga­nized demon­stra­tions in­clud­ing one out­side St. Matthew’s Cathedral, agreed: “It’s the whole sys­tem, the cler­i­cal­ism in the church, that needs to be changed. . . . I’m afraid the fu­ture is go­ing to look more like the past.”

Washington’s Catholics are de­bat­ing what that fu­ture should look like in their arch­dio­cese, even as some con­tinue to ques­tion whether it was right to con­demn Wuerl for his han­dling of sex­ual abuse by priests.

Cooke, a fan of Pope Fran­cis de­spite his deep con­cerns about how the church han­dles abu­sive priests, fa­vors ma­jor changes in church gov­er­nance as the next step, es­pe­cially the in­clu­sion of women in lead­er­ship de­ci­sions that are cur­rently made en­tirely by male priests. He said he would like to see a lib­eral Fran­cis acolyte, such as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Ne­wark, as the next arch­bishop of Washington.

Obike, a con­ser­va­tive Catholic and a Repub­li­can can­di­date for the Mary­land state leg­is­la­ture, has a dif­fer­ent take on what is needed in Washington, where the two most re­cent car­di­nals have now re­signed their po­si­tions in a pe­riod of just four months be­cause of al­le­ga­tions re­lated to sex­ual abuse. “There has to be some­one out there who’s not a part of the McCar­rick-Wuerl regime,” she said. “Any­one who’s con­nected to this Pope Fran­cis regime. Frankly, it’s lib­er­als. It’s a lib­eral elit­ist strain of what it means to be Catholic.”

The abuse cri­sis that ex­ploded this sum­mer shook up all prior spec­u­la­tion about who would even­tu­ally re­place Wuerl, 77, who was ex­pected to re­tire in the next sev­eral years. Fran­cis did not name a re­place­ment on Fri­day, in­stead leav­ing Wuerl in charge of ad­min­is­tra­tion of the arch­dio­cese un­til the pope picks a suc­ces­sor.

Be­fore June, men of­ten named as con­tenders in­cluded San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, Min­neapo­lis and St. Paul Arch­bishop Bernard Hebda (a for­mer per­sonal sec­re­tary to Wuerl in Pitts­burgh) and Seat­tle Arch­bishop J. Peter Sar­tain. All are in the mold of Wuerl, seen as mod­er­ates in U.S. Catholic cul­ture wars.

But now, Fran­cis must look for a bishop who can stew­ard the arch­dio­cese to heal­ing from the re­cent rev­e­la­tions — about both ex-cardinal Theodore McCar­rick’s al­leged abuse of mi­nors and ha­rass­ment of sem­i­nar­i­ans and priests, and Wuerl’s mis­han­dling of sex­ual abuse cases as was ex­posed in a mas­sive Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury re­port.

Rocco Palmo, a long­time chron­i­cler of the machi­na­tions of the U.S. church hi­er­ar­chy, pre­dicted Fri­day that Fran­cis won’t name a suc­ces­sor for Wuerl for months. “It’s far too early to go into names,” he said. “The state of the arch­dio­cese has been up­ended since June.”

Washington’s Catholic com­mu­nity has grown sig­nif­i­cantly un­der Wuerl’s watch, es­pe­cially in pre­dom­i­nantly Latino and Asian parishes, while in most of the North­east and Mid-At­lantic, church mem­ber­ship is fall­ing dra­mat­i­cally. “Be­yond the im­mi­nent need for heal­ing, they need some­one who can over­see and mar­shal that ex­tra­or­di­nary growth,” Palmo said.

Michael Sean Win­ters, a colum­nist at the Na­tional Catholic Re­porter, said Fran­cis will look for a bishop with the in­tel­lect to over­see a dio­cese with nu­mer­ous Catholic schools, in­clud­ing Catholic Uni­ver­sity of Amer­ica and Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity. The new bishop will also need the po­lit­i­cal chops to in­ter­act with Pres­i­dent Trump’s White House, where Wuerl — who was in fre­quent con­tact with previous ad­min­is­tra­tions — has some­times ap­peared to be shut out by an ad­min­is­tra­tion that seems to con­sult evan­gel­i­cals al­most ex­clu­sively when in­put.

“Hav­ing some­body who’s learned about Amer­i­can pol­i­tics would be a re­ally wise choice,” Win­ters said.

Win­ters, who lives in the arch­dio­cese and feels Wuerl was un­fairly pushed out, played down the size of the groundswell in the arch­dio­cese for the cardinal’s res­ig­na­tion, al­though pe­ti­tions racked up thou­sands of sig­na­tures and prom­i­nent lo­cal Catholics called for Wuerl to step down. He ac­cused right-wing Catholic web­sites of be­gin­ning a protest move­ment against Wuerl and other lib­eral lead­ers in the church. “All of a sud­den, we’re in Salem and spec­tral ev­i­dence is enough,” he said, re­fer­ring to the witch tri­als in Salem in colo­nial Mass­a­chu­setts.

But at the Basil­ica of the Na­tional Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, the or­nate blue­domed church in North­east Washington that has been the site seek­ing religious of some of the demon­stra­tions against Wuerl, Mass at­ten­dees en­ter­ing the noon ser­vice Fri­day al­most unan­i­mously said they thought Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion was the right re­sponse to the scan­dal.

“I think do­ing it now is a good step for­ward,” said Bon­nie Fin­nerty, 50, a mother of five who at­tends Mass about three times a week and was just leav­ing her morn­ing phi­los­o­phy class at the Pon­tif­i­cal John Paul II In­sti­tute. “The pope is sig­nal­ing an ac­cep­tance that peo­ple need some clo­sure.”

Cather­ine Pakaluk, a Catholic Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor, said that Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion “gives us a chance to move for­ward with fresh spirit.”

“It cer­tainly in­di­cates that Rome has wo­ken up to the fact that the mat­ters con­fronting the Amer­i­can church need to be ad­dressed,” she said.

Oth­ers said they were pleased that Wuerl was leav­ing his po­si­tion but wished Fran­cis had shown more out­rage about sex­ual abuse, in­stead of prais­ing Wuerl on his way out. The pope wrote a let­ter ac­claim­ing Wuerl’s “no­bil­ity” for re­sign­ing and say­ing that Wuerl’s ac­tions in Pitts­burgh were jus­ti­fi­able mis­takes in­stead of coverups of crime.

Among those wish­ing for stronger words from Fran­cis was Nicole McCarthy, who pushed her daugh­ter in a stroller into the Basil­ica on Fri­day to ob­tain a bless­ing on her first birthday. “I al­ways grew up close to the church,” she said. “So for me, to see the church as not a place we can trust, it tears me apart.”

Even a for­mer em­ployee of the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops, John Carr, who runs a cen­ter at Ge­orge­town and de­scribes Wuerl as a friend and men­tor, said Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion was im­por­tant. “This is a sad but nec­es­sary ac­tion for the good of the church,” he said. “Pope Fran­cis has ac­cepted the res­ig­na­tion of one of his most im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tors.”

Now, Wash­ing­to­ni­ans await news of a new bishop to take the helm of a storm-tossed arch­dio­cese. Even in re­tire­ment, Wuerl may play a ma­jor role in that choice: Pope Fran­cis al­lowed him to keep his po­si­tion in the Con­gre­ga­tion for Bish­ops, the pow­er­ful com­mit­tee that se­lects new church lead­ers.

“There has to be some­one out there who’s not a part of the McCar­rick-Wuerl regime.” Win­nie Obike, on the Washington achdio­cese’s next bishop

Michelle Boorstein con­trib­uted to this re­port.


Catholic teach­ers out­side the Basil­ica of the Na­tional Shrine of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion in North­east Washington on Aug. 28 were boy­cotting Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl’s an­nual back-to-school Mass and call­ing for Wuerl’s res­ig­na­tion over cler­i­cal sex­ual abuse.

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