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 Au­gust Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury re­port 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’s re­lease, 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.


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