Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl from the See of Washington, DC, on Friday, though Francis made Wuerl apostolic administrator of the capital archdiocese until the Pope names a successor — an unusual move given the circumstances of controversy, scandal, and crisis of confidence in Wuerl’s leadership and of the whole US hierarchy.
Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership of the Archdiocese has been under intense scrutiny since news broke on June 20th regarding his immediate predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, who is credibly alleged to be an inveterate pervert and serial abuser of children. Wuerl denies any prior knowledge of his disgraced predecessor’s proclivities, and claims to have been utterly deceived with respect to his predecessor’s character.
Wuerl continued to face increasingly severe criticism throughout the summer, especially in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which offered some qualified praise of Wuerl:
On June 30, 1989, Bishop Donald Wuerl sent a letter to the Vatican with respect to several diocesan priests who had recently been accused of sexually abusing children and whose cases had generated significant publicity. In the letter, Wuerl documented his diocesan policies for sexual abuse and stated his responsibility as Bishop was to determine the course of action in these cases. Wuerl wrote that Catholic parishioners had a right to know whether a priest accused of such crimes had been reassigned to their parish.
Further, Wuerl advised that due to the scandal caused by these priests, he initiated a review of any previous cases of diocesan priests who had been accused of “pedophilic activities” with minors. Wuerl warned the Vatican that Catholic bishops and dioceses could become liable once they are made aware of sexual abuse complaints and that priests who deny the “crime” of pedophilic activity with minors is “common in pedophiles” and that pedophilia is “incurable.”
The short version of the last few months is that Cardinal Wuerl was either telling the truth about his ignorance or was not—and either way lost the confidence of the faithful and his clergy. The revelations regarding Cardinal Wuerl’s record of leadership in Pittsburgh, however, were arguably what sounded the knell for him.
The report also recounts numerous of Wuerl’s failures of leadership as bishop of Pittsburgh, including Wuerl’s handling of the case of Fr. George Zirwas, repeatedly accused of abusing teenaged boys.
The Pennsylvania report details that Zirwas was first sent to St. Joseph Hospital for evaluation in March 1988, after a February allegation. Wuerl was named bishop of Pittsburgh in February, and was installed on March 25, 1988. In November, Wuerl sent Zirwas for further evaluation at St. Luke’s Institute following other complaints, and again returned him to ministry after Zirwas threatened to sue the diocese. The Grand Jury Report further details how then-Bishop Wuerl convinced Zirwas to recant a claim he knew of other sexual predators among the clergy in the diocese, ostensibly in exchange for an increase in the monthly cheque Zirwas received for living expenses.
In fairness to Cardinal Wuerl, those failures were in part conditioned by circumstance. Nor ought Francis be faulted for Pope St. John Paul II’s failure to police episcopal culture thirty years ago, or for Benedict XVI’s decision to raise a man capable of such failure. Painful as it must be, the whole history of failure from top to bottom must out, and soon. Francis is pope now, and the one man with power of right to bring what lurks in darkness into the light of day.
Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership does deserve criticism and rigorous scrutiny, both of which will likely confirm and flesh out what we already know: that Wuerl is a complex and complicated man of considerable talent and ability, who has been weak when he needed to be strong, and has too often been his own worst enemy.
At bottom, however, this is not about Cardinal Wuerl, or even his dastardly predecessor, “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. This is about Pope Francis’s governance of the Church in a time of crisis.
As a governor of the Church, Pope Francis seems to want it both ways. He praises Cardinal Wuerl as a Christ-like shepherd for his request that Francis accept his resignation, even comparing Wuerl’s professed concern over the unity of the Church to Christ’s own high priestly prayer at the Last Supper. Francis even praises Wuerl’s “nobility” in giving his nunc dimittis:
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. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.
The issue here is not the sincerity of Wuerl’s or Francis’s desire to act for the good of the Church. Fr. David Poecking of the Diocese of Pittsburgh told the Catholic World Report, “With Pope Francis, I can believe that the Cardinal truly resigned for the good of the Church.” Fr. Poecking also told CWR, “In his former role as Bishop of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Wuerl in my experience persistently held the clergy accountable to the standards of civil law.”
Fr. Poecking went on to say, “Pope Francis, in a letter perhaps intended as much for Cardinal Wuerl as for the general public, alludes to ‘mistakes’ in a manner that might seem dismissive to those affected by the sexual abuse of minors, but otherwise correctly distinguishes mistakes from ‘what it means to cover up crimes or not deal with problems.’”
In any case, neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal Wuerl may reasonably expect the faithful to be satisfied that, with Wuerl out, the Church in the capital archdiocese — or the United States or anywhere else — can return to business as usual. Nevertheless, that is the thing for which both seem to hope.
“The Holy Father’s decision to provide new leadership to the Archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future,” said Cardinal Wuerl in a prepared statement. Cardinal Wuerl’s desire to let the healing begin appears to dovetail with some expressions found in the closing lines of Pope Francis’s own letter. “In this way,” Pope Francis writes, “you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the Church.”
One wonders why Pope Francis should have seen fit to offer such mellifluous — if not improbable — praise. There are also the outstanding questions regarding the Papal Foundation and the $25 million loan Cardinal Wuerl secured as the Foundation’s chairman, an act of loyalty to the Holy Father that has already done significant damage to reputations both personal and institutional, and could do worse, yet.
Pope Francis has accepted resignations from high-profile Churchmen in the past, including from high-profile figures who have got themselves in hot water. One thinks of the man, who was his personal choice to lead what is now styled the Dicastery for Communication, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, whose spectacular botch of a book launch in March led to his ouster — sort of.
Whether Pope Francis’s apparent reluctance to remove figures of proven loyalty is due to a belief in the policy of standing by one’s allies, or propensity for resistance to pressure — especially when it comes in the form of bad press — or from a desire to keep trusted advisers close by, rigorous adherence to the policy is not without a significant downside. Regardless, whether Wuerl is in or out, the McCarrick scandal is not going away. It sits as a cloud over the whole US hierarchy, even as it reaches the highest echelons of governance of the universal Church.