Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pressing pope to accept his resignation, Cardinal Wuerl does the right thing

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, enters church for Mass at St. Mathew’s Cathedral, on Aug. 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

(RNS) — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., has done the right thing. He has asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation, which he submitted three years ago when he reached 75, the age at which all Catholic bishops submit their resignations.

The cardinal has been under heavy pressure to resign ever since the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August, in which Wuerl was criticized for his handling of abusive priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh (1988-2006). He is the first U.S. cardinal to resign his archdiocese as a result of the abuse crisis since Cardinal Bernard Law did so in 2002 for his failure to deal with abusive priests in Boston.

Wuerl’s episcopal career began in controversy and now ends in controversy. His first episcopal appointment was in 1986 as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle where the Vatican wanted him to be a check on the liberal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Wuerl was soon transferred to his home diocese of Pittsburgh when his position in Seattle became untenable.

While he was bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl got generally favorable reviews for his handling of abuse. In 1988, he was one of the first bishops to meet with survivors of abuse, despite the objections of the diocese’s lawyers. He also refused to return the Rev. Anthony Cipolla to ministry in 1993 when ordered to by the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest court, based in Rome. Few bishops would have stood up to the tribunal’s powerful cardinals.

Despite this generally good record on abuse, the grand jury report showed that Wuerl still returned some priests to ministry on the recommendation of psychologists who said that after treatment they were safe for ministry. And when he notified the police or other bishops about a priest, he did not always give them all the information he had.

In short, although better than most bishops at the time, he did not always follow the rules in place today.

In asking the pope to accept his resignation, Wuerl did what scores of bishops should have done decades ago.

In this April 17, 2015, file photo, Pope Francis, left, talks with Papal Foundation Chairman Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., during a meeting with members of the Papal Foundation at the Vatican. On Aug. 14, 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury accused Wuerl of helping to protect abusive priests when he was Pittsburgh’s bishop. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Although the National Catholic Reporter had been covering clergy sexual abuse since 1985, the crisis first gained national attention in 2002 with The Boston Globe’s exposé. It became apparent that many bishops did not report crimes to the police. In fact, they moved bad priests from parish to parish.

If these bishops had taken responsibility for their actions and resigned, the church would have more easily weathered the crisis. The Vatican, however, resisted having bishops resign under outside pressure. This made it impossible for the church to move on. Only resignations would signal to people that the hierarchy got it.

Wuerl, like many of these bishops, acted out of ignorance in believing it was safe to return some priests to ministry. They thought they could protect children, while at the same time rehabilitating priests and protecting the church from bad publicity. Today bishops know better.

Wuerl is certainly not the worst bishop of his generation in handling abuse. In fact, he was one of the best, but that is still not good enough. Today we have a higher standard.

American Catholics expect their leaders to fully disclose what happened, take responsibility for their actions and resign when appropriate. We expect that from our secular leaders, and church leaders should be held to an even higher standard.

Wuerl has said that after he resigns, he wants to participate in a process of healing for all those who have suffered abuse. If he did nothing else than meet and listen to survivors of abuse, that would be a useful ministry.

Cardinals wear red to symbolize their willingness to die for the church. Resigning is not martyrdom, but it does signal a willingness to put the church above one’s personal welfare.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

49 Comments

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  • Fr. Tom – I’m surprised you buy Wuerl’s version. I think it’s more likely the Nuncio has told him he has to go, and Wuerl asked for the chance to make it seem voluntary. I don’t think he’s doing the right thing for anyone but himself.

  • And what is your basis for “more likely the Nuncio has told him he has to go” other than a lot of vile gossip?

  • Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests like T. Reese and D. Wuerl needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • In asking the pope to accept his resignation, Wuerl did what scores of bishops should have done decades ago.

    Yes.

    The U.S. bishops need, as a body, to submit their resignations to Pope Francis. Their abdication of moral and pastoral responsibility for the church they shepherd has, for several decades now, been scandalous in the extreme, and has had direly destructive consequences.

  • We also need to see the homosexual contingent moved out forthwith.

    Defiance of Canon Law, which is the reason the abuse was not dealt with, goes with rejection of the Church’s teachings, goes with the pretending there are bona-fide disagreements on key Catholic teachings.

    This is the real seamless garment, the garment of Judas.

    Case in point: Rembert Weakland.

  • Donald Cardinal Wuerl may not have done the right thing, but as usual he did the smart thing.

    When you look around your own archdiocese and find clergy on both the left and the right sharpening knives, you keep seeing a red laser dot on parts of your body, and you find red concentric circles neatly stenciled on the backs of your suit coats and vestments, you’d have to be completely witless not to read the signs.

  • Thank you for providing clarity around so many of these awful and painful episodes. I am surrounded by fellow Catholics who are so done with this and walking away. I struggle to make sense of it, as though that were possible. The Cardinal’s resignation was an absolute necessity to begin an attempt at healing and transparency. We cannot rewrite history but we can commit to not repeating it. I remain of the mindset that dictates staying within the family and finding solutions. God help us!

  • Praying for Cardinal Wuerl. I believe he, and many others, need to step down for any chance of a recovery for the Church. Doesn’t look good. Prayers for all of the victims.

  • I’ve researched and read a great deal over the past ten years about the deep (and very dark) history of the Catholic Church and have come to the following conclusion, summarized easily in a single statement in this column:

    “We expect that from our secular leaders, and church leaders should be held to an even higher standard.”

    Two words in that statement reveal the entirety of your Church’s core problem. “Expect” and “Should”.

    SImply replace them with “DEMAND” and “WILL” and your issues of Evil and Corruption disappear.

    The “rank and file” parishioners and their relationship with their God and their Saviour are truly the “Church”. It is NOT a building or great stone edifice, nor is it old, corruptible, fallible MEN.

    It is YOU, the people who MUST step up and bring an end to the vile contempt your so-called leadership has for the masses of faithful worldwide.

    Until those two words above are permanently changed and etched into the stone of every single step in the Vatican, your “Church” is doomed to Hell.

  • As soon as I hit “your Church’s core problem”, I was done.

    If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules.

  • I feel bad for Wuerl. Everything I have read made me think of all the archbishops he was one who actually tried to act correctly years ago when he was told to act immorally by his Church. This action shows once again that he is doing something right. If only the others would have some clarity of conscience. Law never did the right thing – he could have saved his soul if he had taken the right steps…

  • It’s not wrong. Many Catholics practice their religion in spite of priests, bishops, and cardinals, not because of them.

    Also, the church’s “rules” have changed many times throughout its history. Right now it’s clear that the church is very much in the wrong, given the breathtaking scope of abuse. It’s not just a few bad diocese; it’s nearly everywhere. This calls for a similarly broad reform and movement towards transparency.

  • It is wrong.

    Either you’re in the organization participating, or you’re not.

    If you’re not, you don’t get a vote.

  • He is retiring, not resigning due to the wrongs that he has done. It is just another slap in the face to the victims. He will retire with his cushy pension and never admit or pay for his wrong doings. Disgusting!!!!!

  • “Wuerl is certainly not the worst bishop of his generation in handling abuse. In fact, he was one of the best, but that is still not good enough. Today we have a higher standard.”

    I know this is right. But it bothers me greatly that “one of the best” becomes the poster boy for the harm that was done by so many, especially the many who did much worse. More, I sense this is orchestrated to force out a cardinal who seems to act far more as the listening, pastoral shepherd that Pope Francis wants to become the standard of the Church. This isn’t about his actions in covering up sex abuse – it is about his being a cardinal who supports Pope Francis.

    Do we have a “standard” by which to measure a bishops actions with respect the sexual life of clergy and of bishops? The “we” is both the laity and the hierarchy. The “sexual life” is not just child sex abuse but also the abuse of power in coercing someone of lesser power to perform sexual acts, such as a bishop coercing a seminarian or a bishop coercing a nun – the charge that is causing turmoil in India right now. It is about both heterosexual and homosexual behavior and misbehavior; it is not just pedophilia and ephebophilia. And, it is about a priest or bishop having a sex life at all – we know many do but pretend it doesn’t happen. And it is also about the fact that the Church can’t keep this secret anymore – worldwide and instant communication makes keeping secrets nearly impossible.

    I don’t think Pope Francis realizes that the Vatican has to better deal with the whole issue of sex among the clergy. But, maybe he realizes he has to set up something that holds bishops/cardinals accountable. I just wish he would recognize he can’t do it without including the laity in the discussions and whatever process/structure under which bishops will be held accountable.

  • Exactly what were his “wrongs”?

    He made pretty much the same decisions that a host of other bishops made.

    The biggest mistake was NOT following Canon Law and getting abusers out of the ministry.

    That comes from (a) not reading Canon Law, (b) listening to psychologists and psychiatrists, and (c) mollycoddling dissent.

    There are good bishops. They have been sidelined and kept from decision-making.

    The repairs are going to take generations, not years.

  • Wuerl was NOT “one of the best”. He was one of the most successful.

    The standard was the same 1,900 years as it is now.

    You’re edging towards the correct answer.

    Pope Francis needs to realize that he needs to inform the bishops, clergy, and faithful in clear and uncertain terms what the Church teaches on matters sexual.

    There IS a seamless garment, the garment of Judas.

    Rembert Weakland wore it.

    Theodore McCarrick wore it.

    The teachings apply to everyone.

    Doing a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” on birth control, the same on same sex physical congress, remarriage with an existing marital bond, and on and on pretty much cuts the ground out from under being able to complain with a straight face about the hanky panky you happen to dislike.

    Francis has made clear he is not the one who can do this.

  • I’m in the organization and agree with what he or she said. We practice our Catholic religion which is separate from any felonies or other scandals that people in the church commit. By the way, when you did this research, did you come upon the fact that for 15 centuries the Catholic Church WAS the only church?

  • I don’t do a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink”. I flatly reject the idea that contraceptives aren’t important life saving, life enhancing means for women to organize and plan their lives and the lives of their families. I think the LGBT people are also children of God, who made us all want to find someone to love and that physical expression of that love is a thing of beauty. I think that the idea that there can be no finding a life partner when a mistake was made once is actually denying an important part of being human – being both fallible creatures and being God’s creatures He made to seek love and companionship.

    None of this is “hanky panky”. All of this is about people being extraordinarily complex and recognizing that no one is perfect and that one size does not fit all.

  • “I flatly reject the idea that contraceptives aren’t important life saving, life enhancing means for women to organize and plan their lives and the lives of their families.”

    But YOU draw the line at a bishop, for what he believes is the good of the faithful, paying off a victim and remaining silent.

    “I think the LGBT people are also children of God, who made us all want to find someone to love and that physical expression of that love is a thing of beauty.”

    But YOU draw the line at getting sexually involved with teenagers.

    Of course it’s “hanky panky”.

    It’s also about everyone being his or her own Pope, drawing up his or her own rules, and then b-tching when others do the same on some other topic.

    Duh.

    It is all ONE PIECE OF CLOTH, the seamless garment of Judas.

    Bishop Bruskewitz had it right two decades ago: dissent and disobedience is the source of all of it.

  • I was baptized, confirmed, and raised as a Catholic. Two of the predator priests from the PA Attorney General’s report served at the parish where my family belonged when I was a teenager. (I have been thanking my lucky stars that I never was attacked by either of these creeps.) Bloody damned skippy I have skin in this game. I have observed firsthand how Catholicism is practiced by many lay Catholics. And I most certainly have a right to voice my opinion on the Church’s utter failure to police its own ranks and deal with the predators in its midst — and ask the Church to reform and change its ways before it destroys itself.

  • Don’t bother replying to Bob; his bunker mentality and absolutism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • “…. I most certainly have a right to voice my opinion on the Church’s utter failure to police its own ranks and deal with the predators in its midst — and ask the Church to reform and change its ways before it destroys itself.”

    Here you go from Canon Law:

    Can. 212 §1 Christ’s faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church.

    §2 Christ’s faithful are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the Pastors of the Church.

    Being “… baptized, confirmed, and raised as a Catholic” doesn’t make one “Christ’s faithful”.

    It doesn’t hurt to write the local bishop, or the Pope, a note.

    On the other hand, if you’re not doing §1, I’d be embarrassed to assert §2.

    If I was giving the Church the one finger salute on various teachings, I’d be embarrassed to assert §2.

    If I asserted a right to pick and choose, I’d be embarrassed to suggest a bishop doesn’t have that right.

  • You’re the one who dismissed the rape of children by trusted adult religious figures as “hanky panky” and claimed that it’s sin-wise on a par with a consensual sexual relationship between unmarried adults. Copy and paste bits of canon law all you like. It’s clear that something is seriously wrong with your moral compass.

  • This is the idea of “jesuit truth”.

    At the very last moment…when it took the Pennsylvannia attorney general to pull together a horrendous record of abuse, much of which was done under Wuerl’s reign…when his own priests give him a no confidence vote…when his own deacon at the Cathedral says he won’t serve Mass with Cardinal Wuerl ever again, with a very large petition against him, with the Washington Post and other newspapers saying he needs to go….etc etc. etc.

    And Reese says “he does the right thing”

    Jesuitical?

    Is this brand of jesuit truth telling really good for the Church? Is it good for a single soul?

    What would Father Willie Doyle say? What would the Jesuits – the men-priests of old – say?

    It’s sad how far the jesuits have fallen. They used to be “frontiers men” now they’re soft in the belly and soft in the head.

  • You’re commingling two different conversations, one with Phranqlin, one with ATF45.

    Reread each – yes, you missed something.

  • I did NOT dismiss “the rape of children by trusted adult religious figures as ‘hanky panky’”.

    You are unable to cite such a dismissal because I did not make it.

    I did NOT claim “it’s sin-wise on a par with a consensual sexual relationship between unmarried adults”.

    You are unable to cite such a claim because I did not make it.

    What I DID say was:

    – You can’t claim to be able to be your own Pope on various teachings of the Church, and then decry bishops because they looked the other way on Canon Law. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    – While faithful Catholics are entitled to make their concerns and wishes made known to their Pastors, up to and including the Supreme Pontiff, someone who has been sitting outside the Church giving it the one finger salute and not supporting is not a faithful Catholic.

    To that I can add this: a bishop who has parishioner who has supported his or her parish, whose children attend or attended Catholic schools, who has defended the Church will be included to listen to him or her.

    That same bishop faced with someone who authored:

    http://www.aggiornamento.net/2018/09/07/apostolic-succession-really/

    could hardly be blamed if he suggested she drop her thoughts written in a 3.5 x 5 index card in the Suggestion Box.

  • “…his bunker mentality…

    By golly, you’ve given me a new name for Mr. Arnzen: “Bunker Bob”. I like it. Very appropriate (his bedroom has been his “bunker” since he walked out of our marbles game :o)

    Thank you!!!

  • Uhmmm, Bob, it was adherence to Canon law that caused the abuse crisis to not be dealt with forthrightly. Perhaps the real problem is bishops put Canon laws above God’s laws.

  • Uhmmm, Coleen, it was NOT adhering to Canon Law that caused the abuse crisis itself, and also it not being dealt with forthrightly.

    Canon Law requires, and has since its first codification in 1917, and in the 10k plus canons prior to that codification since Trent, that ANY cleric of ANY rank abusing be dismissed from the clerical state.

    ANY deacon, priest, or bishop who was caught abusing was supposed to be sent packing forthwith, not sent for “evaluation and treatment”.

    The ONLY person who could order otherwise is the Pontiff himself, who is the author of Canon Law and its highest judge.

    It also provides that in the case of a crime that it be reported to the civil authorities unless the civil authority itself – e.g., North Korea – cannot administer justice.

    In addition it requires that just compensation be made.

    So, it was NOT adhering to Canon Law that was the problem.

    But when you have bishops and priests who were doing “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to birth control, abortion, fornication, divorce and remarriage without an annulment, and on, and on, and on why would anyone expect obedience to either Canon Law or God’s law?

  • Did you actually READ the article?

    “The pontifical secret, also sometimes called papal secrecy, is a rule of confidentiality protecting sensitive information regarding the governance of the universal Church. It is similar to the ‘classified’ or ‘confidential’ status common in companies or civil governments.”

    Or, for that matter, the personnel files of a corporation, or your counseling files.

    It has zero to do with kicking abusing clerics out forthwith.

    It also has nothing to do with reporting crimes to the civil authorities.

    It covers “service in the Curia or the diplomatic corps”, “diplomatic communications made between the Vatican’s nunciatures around the world”, “private dossiers and recommendations on priests and bishops being considered for promotion”, “penal processes concerning major crimes handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, including cases involving the sexual abuse of minors.”

    Note that it only covers the penal processes themselves, and ONLY in trials by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

    Those internal deliberations are internal matters, protected by the First Amendment in this country.

    It DOES NOT prevent turning over evidence to the civil authorities or reporting crimes.

  • “Clarity and “transparency” involves coming clean, naming names, putting some priests in prison where they belong, apologizing face to face with victims, and compensating them for their suffering and mental anguish.

    God is just a concept, not a physical being that actually helps anyone. You help the victims by making the perpetrators accountable for their crimes against the most innocent among us.

  • And to wind up this discussion with the Great Kibosh:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Nope, you’re just making this up now.

    Canon Law, or the Pontifical Privilege, merely prohibits providing access to the Church’s internal deliberations and trials. It has NEVER prevented the turning over evidence to the civil authorities or reporting crimes.

    I’d read more Canon Law and less Kieran Tapsell and Thomas Doyle.

  • “[I]t was NOT adhering to Canon Law that caused the abuse crisis itself, and also it not being dealt with forthrightly. Canon Law requires, and has since its first codification in 1917, and in the 10k plus canons prior to that codification since Trent, that ANY cleric of ANY rank abusing be dismissed from the clerical state.”

    Not true.

    In its “Questions and Answers Regarding the Canonical Process for the Resolution of Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests and Deacons”, the USCCB states: “Catholic Church law provides a range of penalties for various crimes. For the sexual abuse of minors it provides for a just penalty THAT MAY INCLUDE DISMISSAL FROM THE CLERICAL STATE. In any event, according to the *Essential Norms*, in every case where a cleric admits to or is found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors he is permanently withdrawn from all public ministry. Nor may he present himself as a priest or deacon. Thus, even if a member of the clergy is not dismissed from the clerical state for having committed the crime of the sexual abuse of minors, his public ministry is still fully restricted in light of the gravity of the offense committed” (caps for emphasis).

    The above information is consistent with:

    + CDF, “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church and to the Ordinaries and Hierarchs, regarding the modifications introduced in the Normae de gravioribus delictis” dtd 21 May 2010 (article 6),

    + USCCB, “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons” dtd May 5, 2006 (norm 8), and

    + 1983 Code of Canon Law, c.1395.2.

    Dismissal from the clerical state, according to c. 1395.2, is an option, perhaps the preferred outcome in most cases, all matters being equal. However, the bishop/judge, depending on circumstances, may impose other penalties as deemed appropriate.

    See also “Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal” at https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/02/world/europe/02pope.html.