Washington archbishop resigns
Cardinal’s move follows accusations of sex-abuse cover-up
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 for 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, Pope
Francis 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 Washington archdiocese 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 Pennsylvania grand jury report from August that depicted decades of systemic sexual abuse within the church — some of it occurring in Pittsburgh, where Wuerl served as bishop. The 900-page report portrays Wuerl as being inconsistent in his handling of sexual abuse, and in the aftermath of the report, the meticulous cleric — who once had a reputation as a controversy-free reformer — faced mounting anger and calls for his resignation.
On Friday, some Catholics said 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 his 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 diocese spokesman said that the 77-year-old Wuerl will retain his place in the powerful Congregation of Bishops, the section of the Roman Curia that helps to pick bishops.
“It’s very disappointing,” said David Clohessy, the former national director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. “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. 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 report’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 Washington 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.”
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 in Washington, 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 sites accusing Wuerl — along with popes Benedict and Francis — 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 in August released the grand jury investigation, said that his office’s report made clear that Wuerl “actively engaged in the cover-up.”
While Wuerl sometimes handled cases well, Shapiro said, “this isn’t a balancing act. … You don’t get a mulligan when it comes to passing predator priests around.”
Wuerl pushed back on the grand jury report, saying he did everything he could under the laws and norms of times past. He has asked parishioners in a public talk to forgive his “errors in judgment” while he was a bishop in Pittsburgh.
He has also denied knowing of any allegations against McCarrick before June, when McCarrick was suspended after church officials in New York found credible an allegation he groped an altar boy decades ago.