Pope accepts cardinal’s resignation amid scandal
But Francis praises Wuerl, angering abuse survivors
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis accepted the resignation Friday of the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, after he became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals and lost the support of many in his flock.
But in a letter released by Wuerl’s office, Francis 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 among rank-and-file Catholics over the abuse scandal.
The pope’s apparent reluctance to remove Wuerl was evidence of the fraught personnel decisions he has been forced to make as he grapples with the burgeoning global scandal that has implicated some of his closest advisers and allies, including top churchmen in the U.S., Belgium, Honduras, Chile and Australia.
With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations hesexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.
A grand jury report issued in August on rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from1988 to 2006.
Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by McCarrick.
A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl’s resignation as Washington archbishop, but named no replacement; in his letter, the pope asked him to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.
Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially played down the scandal and insisted on his own good record, but then ultimately came to the conclusion that he could 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 onhealing andthe future,” Wuerlsaid in a statement Friday. “Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon.”
In a letter to the Washington faithful, which Wuerl asked to be read aloud at Mass this weekend, Wuerl addressed in particular survivors of abuse. Cardinal Donald Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, also was forced to resign as cardinal.
“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.”
In his letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he recognized that, in asking to retire, Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions. He once again referred obliquely to the devil being at work in accusing bishops of wrongdoing, saying the “father of lies” was trying to hurt shepherds and divide their flock.
“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. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this I am proud and thank you.”
Francis’ praise for Wuerl alarmed survivors’ advocates, who said it was evidence of the clerical culture Francis himself denounces in which the church hierarchy consistently protects its own.
Terrence McKiernan, president of the online abuse database BishopAccountability, said it showed that for Francis, “Cardinal Wuerl is more important than the children he put in harm’s way. Until Pope Francis reverses this emphasis on coddling the hierarchy at the expense of children, the Catholic Church will never emerge from this crisis.”
Wuerl had submitted his resignation to Francis nearly three years ago, when he turned 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. But Francis kept him on, as popes tend to do with able-bodied bishops who share their pastoral priorities.
But Wuerl made a personal appeal to Francis last month to accept the resignation, after the fallout of the McCarrick scandal and outrage over the Pennsylvania grand jury report leading to a crisis in confidence in the church hierarchy.