Cardinal sin

Mr. Wuerl, Washington’s arch­bishop, is ex­it­ing, but with a pon­tif­i­cal pat on the back.

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IN WRESTLING with the scourge of pe­dophile priests, Pope Fran­cis has at­tacked cler­i­cal­ism — the def­er­ence ac­corded to the Catholic Church’s hi­er­ar­chy at the ex­pense of the faith­ful — while leav­ing him­self vul­ner­a­ble to the very same charge. So it was on Fri­day re­gard­ing Cardinal Don­ald Wuerl, the arch­bishop of Washington, who was im­pli­cated in cov­er­ing up clergy sex abuse when he was the bishop of Pitts­burgh. The pope ac­cepted the cardinal’s res­ig­na­tion but at the same time lauded his “no­bil­ity” and pro­tected much of his stand­ing and in­flu­ence within the church.

That mixed mes­sage on sex­ual abuse of mi­nors has been a hall­mark of Fran­cis’s pa­pacy. With prac­ti­cally each move he makes to con­tain the ero­sion of the church’s author­ity, he sub­verts his own pur­pose, and by ex­ten­sion the in­sti­tu­tion it­self, by his am­biva­lence.

No doubt, Mr. Wuerl’s even­tual de­par­ture — he will re­main in a care­taker’s role in Washington un­til a new arch­bishop is named — is a wa­ter­shed. It fol­lows close on the heels of an equally stun­ning event: the res­ig­na­tion from the Col­lege of Car­di­nals of his pre­de­ces­sor in Washington, Theodore McCar­rick, in July, fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions that he mo­lested a mi­nor and pres­sured sem­i­nary stu­dents to share his bed decades ago. Grad­u­ally, the im­punity of the church’s most se­nior cler­ics is crum­bling un­der the weight of pub­lic op­pro­brium and the scru­tiny of civil author­i­ties.

In Mr. Wuerl’s case, the blow was in­flicted by a grand jury in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by Penn­syl­va­nia’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, whose bomb­shell re­port, is­sued in Au­gust, named more than 300 priests in the abuse of 1,000 chil­dren over seven decades. Mr. Wuerl, who was bishop in Pitts­burgh for 18 years, was im­pli­cated in re­turn­ing sev­eral ac­cused priests to min­istry.

As his de­fend­ers pointed out, Mr. Wuerl was hardly the worst of­fender; in some in­stances, he pressed to re­move pe­dophile priests from po­si­tions where they could prey on mi­nors. But as Josh Shapiro, the Penn­syl­va­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral, told us: “This isn’t a bal­anc­ing act . . . you don’t get a mul­li­gan when it comes to pass­ing preda­tor priests around.”

As the Vatican drags its feet — Mr. Wuerl will re­tain his in­flu­ence as a mem­ber of the body that chooses bish­ops — the ground is shift­ing un­der the church across the United States. Since the Penn­syl­va­nia re­port was is­sued, the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s hot­line has re­ceived nearly 1,300 calls from peo­ple say­ing they were vic­tim­ized by priests. Sim­i­lar hot­lines are be­ing flooded with calls in New York and New Jersey. A dozen states have launched their own in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Much of the im­pulse for re­form is com­ing from the laity, who are de­mand­ing the ac­count­abil­ity that is com­ing too slowly from Rome. Mean­while, the church’s own lob­by­ists con­tinue to re­sist; in Penn­syl­va­nia, they are battling leg­is­la­tion that would al­low child­hood vic­tims of sex abuse to sue their abusers, and the church, years later.

Pope Fran­cis is sum­mon­ing top bish­ops from all over the world to the Vatican in Fe­bru­ary to dis­cuss the “pro­tec­tion of mi­nors.” That may be his last chance to clar­ify his murky record on the is­sue.

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