Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who in a matter of months went from a trusted papal ally who had largely managed to avoid controversy over a long career to a prominent symbol of what many Catholics have come to regard as an infuriatingly weak and defensive response by their church to clerical sex abuse.
Pope Francis said that he had asked Wuerl to stay on as an “apostolic administrator” until a successor was found.
In a letter of praise, Francis wrote to Wuerl saying that he saw in the cardinal’s request to step down “the heart of a shepherd.” Francis did not criticize Wuerl’s handling of abuse cases.
“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.”
“If you read the sections on the cardinal [Wuerl], our report is clear that he was actively engaged in the cover-up,” said Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, whose office in August released a grand jury investigation that detailed Wuerl’s actions.
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.”
That Wuerl, who had been expected to stay in the high-visibility role until at least when he turned 80, would ask to go, and that Francis would let him at such a crucial time in the U.S. church, are being viewed by some observers as small but much needed signs of change.
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 for child sex abuse of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s D.C. predecessor, which quickly led Catholics to wonder what Wuerl knew. Then came the public release of a 900-page report by a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing priest sexual abuse in six dioceses, which painted Wuerl as inconsistent in his handling of sexual abuse during the 18 years he served as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Lastly, 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.
Then late August an investigative story by The Post echoed the grand jury report’s findings in more detail, noting that while Wuerl in multiple cases moved to remove priest-abusers from active ministry, in some instances priests went on to abuse again in other roles.
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.
While hundreds of priest-abusers have been removed in recent decades, the bishops and cardinals responsible for overseeing them almost never are, and Catholics in 2018 have been showing signs of being fed up with the status quo. They’ve been openly outraged, 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 he groped an altar boy decades ago. He also 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” 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 Pope Francis and a member of the Vatican’s powerful bishop-picking 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 could have done more for victims.
Despite Wuerl’s earlier efforts on abuse, 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.
His name in the summer of 2018 also became associated — fairly or unfairly — with McCarrick, his predecessor as D.C.’s Catholic leader. McCarrick was suspended in June on charges he groped an altar boy, and a few weeks later resigned from the college of cardinals, the first U.S. cardinal in history to do so. 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 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 he’d 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 was 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 became a priest at the age of 26, in 1966 in Pittsburgh, his hometown. 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 present 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. He was plunged in the late 1980s 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 — or assistant — bishop, and had him take over many administrative functions from Hunthausen.
It was hugely controversial and led Wuerl to, at that time, be 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 D.C. seminarians said his nickname was “Teflon Don” because they felt he was too cautious to ever 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 his hometown of 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 had 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.
His local resume changed a bit early in his Pittsburgh tenure, when a priest named Anthony Cipolla was removed from ministry amid allegations he’d abused several boys. Cipolla appealed, and in 1993 the Vatican demanded 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 Wuerl’s willingness to challenge the Vatican delayed him becoming a cardinal years later as a punishment.
In 2006, he was installed as archbishop of Washington, one of the country’s most prominent spots, 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 two popes — Benedict in 2008 and Francis in 2015. The Benedict visit in particular is considered a publicity boon for the Vatican. Wuerl received praise for his role since the conservative pontiff hadn’t gotten much love from the U.S. press before.
Despite the Hunthausen period earlier in his career, Wuerl in D.C. became known for holding the middle ground in a culture bolting to the extremes. He adopted the affirmative position of McCarrick on the question of whether politicians who support the right to abortion can receive communion. He has also increasingly adopted Francis’ welcoming tone on gay issues, something of a public shift on the issue after severing 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 D.C.
As a close adviser to Pope Francis, Wuerl has often been painted by conservative Catholics as too liberal — someone making excuses for Francis’ emphasis on acceptance and welcome rather than clarifying doctrinal borders.
Focus on Wuerl revved up in June 2018, when the Vatican suspended McCarrick, and two New Jersey dioceses revealed that they had come to legal settlements with adult accusers, one in 2005 and one in 2007. Wuerl became Washington’s archbishop in 2006.
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 2018, Wuerl said his most recent communication from the Vatican said he was reappointed until he is 80. He is 77 and will be 78 on Nov. 12, 2018.
His last major endeavor, one of which he was very proud, was the release in March 2018 of a pastoral letter — or teaching — meant to tell D.C.-area Catholics how to implement Francis’ vision of inclusion. Wuerl’s letter to his archdiocese’s 630,000 Catholics and their clergy tells them to focus on welcoming, and on accompanying others in their lives at a time in history 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, the church needs to welcome people who are working to be closer to the church and its teachings. Wuerl frequently used the phrases “in good faith” and “individual conscience.”
In an interview this March, Wuerl told the Post he couldn’t have written such a letter 10 or 20 years ago — not because he changed, but because society has.
“Think of the situation in our world today. We’re talking about accompanying the hurting. Think of sex assaults, gun abuse, all the injuries and gang violence. Racist words. Human trafficking. I think 15 years ago I don’t think I’d have known it existed, but it’s a very real part of life,” he said. Think of “the anonymous people. Think of the people who live very insular lives. They don’t have many friends. Their communications are through their iPhone. I think we’ve become hyper-disconnected . . . That’s what’s all new in our effort to accompany.”
Asked what defines the D.C. period of his career, Wuerl said 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 asked in that March 2018 interview about criticism Francis has received that he 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,” Wuerl said. “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.”