Pope Francis accepts resignation of DC archbishop Wuerl, amid criticism of the cardinal's handling of abuse claims


Chico Harlan

Rome bureau chief covering southern Europe and sometimes parts beyond

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 “apostolic administrator” in the Washington archdiocese until a successor was found.

In his letter, Francis suggested he had accepted Wuerl’s resignation reluctantly, and said he saw in the cardinal’s request the “heart of a shepherd.” Francis did not criticize Wuerl’s handling of abuse cases, and wrote that Wuerl had “sufficient elements” to defend his actions.

“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense,” Francis wrote. “Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

[Wuerl’s handling of sexual abuse now imperils his legacy as a reformer]

The Vatican’s announcement about Wuerl’s fate comes almost a month after Wuerl, 77, first suggested he would urge Francis to accept his resignation. For Wuerl, the request to resign was a dramatic turnaround for the guarded, by-the-book cleric — and it underscored the anger he faced in the aftermath of a detailed Pennsylvania grand jury report about his handling of abuse cases during his 18-year tenure as the bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

But Friday, some Catholics said that Francis — with his message about Wuerl’s decision — was being overly protective of an ally and overlooking the seriousness of the cardinal’s case. A Washington diocese spokesperson said that Wuerl, 77, will remain 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 (SNAP). “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.”

[Abuse settlement with Wuerl’s name on it raised more questions]

Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania and whose office in August released a grand jury investigation that detailed Wuerl’s actions on abuse allegations, said that the report made clear that Wuerl “actively engaged in the coverup.”

While Wuerl sometimes handled cases well, Shapiro said during a meeting with members of The Washington Post editorial board, “this isn’t a balancing act … You don’t get a mulligan when it comes to passing predator priests around.”

In the archdiocese of Washington, parishioners who had organized protests calling for Wuerl’s resignation reacted with relief but also further concerns. “We can now focus our efforts on actually creating institutional change, as opposed to focusing on a change in leadership,” said Jack Devlin, an organizer of one of the most dramatic displays of lost confidence in Wuerl — when more than 40 schoolteachers stood outside the annual back-to-school Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to demand he step down.

Devlin, a Catholic school teacher, said Francis’s letter did nothing to reassure him about the trustworthiness of church leadership. “When it comes to child abuse, this isn’t like, ‘Oops, I messed up.’ These are kids we’re talking about,” he said. “The way Pope Francis worded it, it was how you’d word somebody making a little mistake. This is not a little mistake.”

[Catholic clergyman said he would refuse to participate in Mass with Wuerl]

In a statement, Wuerl said the pope’s decision to accept his resignation would permit the local church “to move forward.”

“Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon,” Wuerl said.

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 who demanded answers and called for his resignation at nearly every turn.

First came the June suspension of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for child sex abuse. McCarrick was Wuerl’s D.C. predecessor, and the suspension quickly led Catholics to wonder what Wuerl knew. Then came the public release of the 900-page report by the Pennsylvania grand jury detailing priest sexual abuse in six dioceses, which painted Wuerl as inconsistent in his handling of sexual abuse.

On Aug. 25 a former Vatican ambassador accused 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.

Wuerl himself has declined to speak to The Post since the grand jury report came out, but through his spokesman Ed McFadden he has defended his record. Wuerl held a series of meetings in recent weeks with his priests, and some who attended said there were a handful of vocal critics at each.

Francis has also been under fire since the release of the letter by former ambassador Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, but Wuerl’s removal — following McCarrick’s resignation in July — represents a new era of tougher accountability for top church leaders accused of mishandling or covering up clergy sex abuse. Also last summer two New Jersey dioceses revealed that they had come to legal settlements with adult accusers of sexual abuse by clergy, one in 2005 and one in 2007.

While hundreds of priest-abusers have been removed in recent decades, the bishops and cardinals responsible for overseeing them seldom see the same fate, and Catholics in 2018 have been showing signs that they’re up with the status quo. They’ve shown outrage, organizing protests, demanding resignations and threatening to withhold their money from the church.

Wuerl has denied knowing of any allegations against McCarrick before June, when McCarrick was suspended after church officials in New York found credible an allegation that he groped an altar boy decades ago. Wuerl also pushed back on the grand jury report, saying he did everything he could under the laws and norms of times past. He has publicly asked parishioners to forgive his “errors in judgment” in handling sexual abuse allegations while he was a bishop in Pittsburgh.

It was, in a way, a surprising career-end for Wuerl, a meticulous manager who largely avoided controversy and politics and rose to become a confidant of Francis and a member of the Vatican’s powerful bishop-choosing committee. To his defenders and even to some government prosecutors who worked in the arena of sex abuse, Wuerl had been seen as a pioneer in the church on this topic — advocating in the 1980s for victims’ rights and for transparency and concluding that pedophilia was not curable.

Yet the explosive grand jury report offered an alternative picture of Wuerl, one unfamiliar to younger Catholics. The report, which powerfully revived the topic of Catholic clergy abuse, focused on several cases in the diocese of Pittsburgh, which Wuerl led from 1988 to 2006. It alleged that Wuerl and other clerics failed to inform police, parishioners and others about abusers and that they could have done more for victims.

Despite Wuerl’s earlier efforts on addressing the church’s sexual abuse scandal, even going to the Vatican to press for reform, the report says, ultimately Wuerl was inconsistent in handling abusive priests in his own diocese, sometimes making sure they stayed out of churches but sometimes returning them to ministry. “Wuerl’s statements had been meaningless without any action,” the report read. An investigative story published in The Post in late August echoed the grand jury report’s findings in more detail.

Last summer, Wuerl’s name also became associated with McCarrick, the first U.S. cardinal in history to resign from the College of Cardinals. With rumors having circulated about McCarrick’s alleged misconduct with seminarians and young priests, Catholics quickly wanted to know how McCarrick had risen in leadership, and many found it impossible to believe Wuerl knew nothing of the rumors and legal settlements with accusers. Wuerl denied he did.

Wuerl’s defenders say he’s been caught up in scandal unfairly during a bitterly polarized era in the church, and that he has always been a leader on addressing sexual abuse — even as church leaders concede his past actions would never past muster in 2018.

They also note his bureaucratic successes in keeping the dioceses where he worked, including all of their social service efforts, in relatively good financial health in an era when Americans are fleeing institutional religion. And he has been praised for his commitment to holding a middle ground on divisive topics, including abortion and homosexuality.

“Knowing what I know about Donald Wuerl, and knowing what I know about the leadership he provided, it just kills me to hear people say he’s the problem. He was actually the solution,” said Dennis Roddy, a longtime newspaper columnist and political consultant in the Pittsburgh area. He has written about the powerful impact of Catholic culture and ethnic tribalism that he says still endures.

In late September, John Carr, a longtime top lobbyist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who now runs an initiative at Georgetown University, published an essay in the Jesuit journal America revealing abuse coverups that he had witnessed over the years and said he understood why Wuerl needed to step down.

“Cardinal Donald Wuerl is also a good friend, a leader who has served the church in many important ways,” Carr wrote. “I believe he was better than most in dealing with sexual abuse in years past, but that was not good enough.”

Wuerl was 26 when he became a priest in 1966 in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He rose quickly in the church, becoming assistant to then-Bishop John Wright, who became a cardinal in Rome, giving Wuerl entree to the Vatican at a young age. Wright was in a wheelchair at the time, and since Wuerl was his assistant the younger priest was a rare non-cardinal inside the conclave that elected Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s.

Wuerl’s focus has largely been education, including modernizing seminaries and writing books. In the late 1980s he was plunged into church culture wars — and earned a name as a company man — when the Vatican sent him to Seattle to counter a liberal bishop named Raymond Hunthausen. The Vatican charged Hunthausen, a peace activist, with being lax with enforcing church doctrine in everything from marriage annulments and ministry to LGBT Catholics to priest discipline.

Hunthausen was a hero to many Catholics for his activism on nuclear disarmament, but conservative critics accused him of deviating from Catholic doctrine by allowing a group for gay Catholics to celebrate Mass at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, allowing divorced or remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, and permitting Catholic hospitals to perform contraceptive sterilizations.

After an investigation, the Vatican appointed Wuerl in 1985 to be auxiliary bishop and had him take over many administrative functions from Hunthausen.

It was hugely controversial, and Wuerl became associated with the more conservative wing of the church. “The unwanted bishop,” is how Wuerl is described in a biography of him by Ann Rogers and Mike Aquilina.

Experts on Wuerl and the U.S. church say he was more committed to rules and bureaucratic structures than he was driven by a conservative ideology. Wuerl is highly disciplined; he sits, dresses and stands impeccably and speaks in a slow, deliberate professorial tone. Some Washington seminarians said his nickname was “Teflon Don” because they felt he was too cautious to make the kind of mistake that could lead to his fall.

Hunthausen’s authority was restored in the late 1980s, and Wuerl was sent to back to Pittsburgh as bishop.

Wuerl maintained his reputation as a skilled administrator. He was known as “the teaching bishop.” He hosted a weekly cable television show and compiled a best-selling book of Catholic teachings. He was also known in Pittsburgh as a behind-the-scenes bridge-builder, someone who preferred pressing quietly in private to making demands in public.

While Wuerl was in Pittsburgh a priest named Anthony Cipolla was removed from the ministry amid allegations that he had abused several boys. Cipolla appealed, and in 1993 the Vatican demanded that Wuerl reinstate him. Wuerl refused, taking the fight to the Vatican Supreme Court. He later won.

The Cipolla case set the parameters for Wuerl’s early reputation on the topic of abuse. Victims praised him, and some feel that the church delayed making Wuerl a cardinal as a punishment for his willingness to challenge the Vatican.

In 2006, he was installed as archbishop of Washington, one of the country’s most prominent posts, partly because it’s the seat of government, but also because many major Catholic Church institutions are in the D.C. region — the bishops’ conference, Catholic University (the bishops’ university), the Vatican’s U.S. representative and major relief organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA.

In Washington, Wuerl has been praised as a successful if emotionally distant leader, pulling the archdiocese’s finances into better order, working well with the city to shift some closing Catholic schools into charter schools and hosting the visits of two popes — Benedict in 2008 and Francis in 2015.

Wuerl became known in Washington for holding the middle ground in a culture bolting to the extremes. He agreed with McCarrick that politicians who support the right to abortion can receive Holy Communion. He has also increasingly adopted Francis’s welcoming tone on gay issues, something of a public shift on the issue after he severed benefits for unmarried couples who worked for the archdiocese’s Catholic aid group in 2009 rather than offer coverage to same-sex couples newly allowed to marry in the District of Columbia.

As a close adviser to Francis, Wuerl has often been painted by conservative Catholics as too liberal — someone making excuses for Francis’s emphasis on acceptance and welcome rather than clarifying doctrinal borders.

Wuerl had been set to leave office soon anyway because of his age. Bishops are required at age 75 to submit their resignation, and Wuerl did so on Nov. 12, 2015. It’s customary for bishops to stay on at the choosing of the pope, and Wuerl in mid-2018 wasn’t expected to go anywhere fast because he remained a busy partner with Francis on various things. In an interview with The Post in March, Wuerl said his most recent communication from the Vatican said he was reappointed until he is 80. He will be 78 on Nov. 12.

His last major endeavor, one of which he was very proud, was the release in March of a pastoral letter — or teaching — meant to tell D.C. area Catholics how to implement Francis’s vision of inclusion. Wuerl’s letter to his archdiocese’s 630,000 Catholics and their clergy tells them to focus on welcoming and accompanying others in their lives at a time when many families feel unstable and social isolation is rampant.

He even appeared to leave the door open to priests and regular Catholics as to whether Communion is an option in some cases even for people who don’t seem to qualify. Catholics, he wrote in March, can’t be held culpable for sticking to the teaching if they didn’t have strong Catholic education and counseling. Also, he said, the church needs to welcome people who are working to be closer to the church and its teachings.

Asked what defines the Washington period of his career, Wuerl said in the March interview with The Post that it was partly staying out of politics.

“The focus for me is spiritual, pastoral and as a teacher of the faith. For me those are the defining parts of my experience here. I see myself as a spiritual leader, not someone who is engaged in the political life,” he said.

Wuerl was also asked about critics who say Francis isn’t doing as much he could on the topic of clerical sex abuse. One of the primary criticisms of Francis has been that he hasn’t held leaders accountable by removing them.

“I don’t see that. He’s been very clear, consistent. He’s put a committee together,” Wuerl said. “. . it seems to me any time there is a glitch — for example when he says: ‘You know you need to have proof,’ it gets exaggerated. It gets inserted into some story line that he’s not as committed as he should be. I don’t see that story line as valid. I see him supporting all of us in zero tolerance. I see him saying we won’t reassign priests. But if there is anything that comes up that seems not to completely verify that, then we get this story line that somehow the pope is backing away from his commitment.”

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