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Pope accepts Washington cardinal’s resignation amid scandal

In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, left, looks toward the crowd with Pope Francis after a Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Wuerl wrote to priests to defend himself on the eve of the scheduled Aug. 14, 2018, release of a grand jury report investigating child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis accepted the resignation Friday of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl after he became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals and lost the support of many in his flock.

But in a letter released by Wuerl’s office, Francis praised his longtime ally and suggested Wuerl had unfairly become a scapegoat, having made some “mistakes” in handling sex abuse cases, but not having covered them up.

With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll in the scandal roiling the Catholic Church after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.

A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl’s resignation, but named no replacement; in his letter, the pope asked him to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.

The decision came after months in which Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially downplayed the scandal, insisted on his own good record, but then progressively came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.

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

In his letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he recognized that in asking to retire, Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions, as all shepherds must do.

“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.”

Wuerl had submitted his resignation to Francis nearly three years ago, when he turned 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. But Francis kept him on, as popes tend to do with able-bodied bishops who share their pastoral priorities.

But a grand jury report issued in August on rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by McCarrick.

Wuerl has not been charged with any wrongdoing but was named numerous times in the grand jury report, which details instances in which he allowed priests accused of misconduct to be reassigned or reinstated.

In one case cited in the report, Wuerl — acting on a doctor’s recommendation — enabled priest William O’Malley to return to active ministry as a canonical consultant in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents. Years later, according to the report, six more people alleged that they were sexually assaulted by O’Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.

In another case, Wuerl returned a priest to active ministry in 1995 despite having received multiple complaints that the priest, George Zirwas, had molested boys in the late 1980s.

Wuerl apologized for the damage inflicted on the victims but also defended his efforts to combat clergy sex abuse.

His defenders have cited a case that surfaced in 1988, when a 19-year-old former seminarian, Tim Bendig, filed a lawsuit accusing a priest, Anthony Cipolla, of molesting him. Wuerl initially questioned Bendig’s account but later accepted it and moved to oust Cipolla from the priesthood. The Vatican’s highest court ordered Wuerl to restore Cipolla to priestly ministry, but Wuerl resisted and, after two years of legal procedures, prevailed in preventing Cipolla’s return.

“No bishop or cardinal in the nation has had a more consistent and courageous record than Donald Wuerl in addressing priestly sexual abuse,” contends Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League.

Wuerl’s archdiocese issued a series of similar plaudits on Friday, coinciding with the Vatican announcement. They included a letter from the archdiocesan chancellor Kim Vitti Fiorentino, who lamented that Wuerl’s “pioneering leadership in the enhancement, implementation and enforcement of historically innovative child protection policies was overshadowed by the (Pennsylvania grand jury) report’s flaws and its interpretation by the media.”

A joint statement by Washington auxiliary bishops also praised Wuerl for his service and pastoral care and said his decision to step down was a “clear manifestation of his love and concern for the people of the archdiocese.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes for Religion News Service, described Wuerl as an ideological moderate.

“He was totally enthusiastic about John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict, and now he’s totally enthusiastic about Pope Francis,” Reese said. “There are not many people in the church who are totally enthusiastic about all three of them.”

Numerous conservative Catholic activists and commentators, though, considered him too tolerant of the LGBT community and too liberal on some other issues. They resented his pivotal role a decade ago in resisting a push by some of his fellow bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support the right to abortion.

Survivor advocate David Clohessy of the group SNAP said Wuerl’s “long-overdue” resignation might give solace to victims. But he said it would likely do little to deter others in the hierarchy from covering up for abusers.

“But if archaic, predatory-friendly laws were reformed and if more prosecutors showed real courage, these complicit clerics might face criminal charges, and that might make a real difference,” he said in a statement.

Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, attended Catholic University in Washington and received a doctorate in theology from the University of Saint Thomas in Rome. He joined the priesthood in 1966, was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1986, and served briefly as auxiliary bishop in Seattle before going to Pittsburgh.

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Crary reported from New York.

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17 Comments

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  • Perhaps Donald Wuerl will now have time to reflect on the lamentable role he played as an attack dog when St. John Paul the Great and Cardinal Ratzinger had that admirable bishop Raymond Hunthausen in their sights for, inter alia, daring to insist that the Catholic community can and must be welcoming to LGBTQ human beings.

    It was his willingness to be a tool in the hands of St. John Paul the Great and Cardinal Ratzinger in that ugly attack on a good bishop that launched Wuerl’s stellar career and sent him to the top. Perhaps he’ll be remembering all of this now with a bit of remorse. One hopes so.

  • “…a grand jury report issued in August on rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006”

    “Wuerl — acting on a doctor’s recommendation — enabled priest William O’Malley to return to active ministry as a canonical consultant in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents. ”

    “Wuerl returned a priest to active ministry in 1995 despite having received multiple complaints that the priest, George Zirwas, had molested boys in the late 1980s”

    ……………

    ““No bishop or cardinal in the nation has had a more consistent and courageous record than Donald Wuerl in addressing priestly sexual abuse,” contends Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League.”

    Which says what about the rest of them?

    Another example of engaging mouth prior to putting brain in gear?

  • It is only justice for Wuerl to resign if those who were equally bad – or even worse – are also forced to resign. If those equally as bad – or worse – are retired or dead, it is still only justice if they are also identified. One example of “equally as bad – or worse” would be Cardinal Bernard Law, St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and probably most of those who work in the Vatican – at least those in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and anyone who worked in dicasteries that oversee priests, bishops, and/or religious orders.

    My intent in making that comment is not to deny that Wuerl also covered up cases of abuse. It is to make the point that Wuerl is hardly the “poster-boy”, he is not the worst, and the problem is not solved by the resignation of a Cardinal or Bishop or two or three.

    To force the resignation of all those involved in the coverup of sex abuse would include most if not all current bishops, cardinals and, even, Pope Francis. It would also include a huge number of current priests, who by their turning their backs when presented with knowledge of sex abuse of children or of sex abuse of seminarians/priests by those with authority over them were complicit in the abuse continuing. But, poor priests, they were pledged to obedience to their bishop, bishops were pledged to obedience to the Pope, and everyone was committed to avoid scandal at any cost. Many had some idea abuse was going on but were careful not to find out for sure.

    What is different now is that Pope Francis is recognizing that the fault lies within the clerical nature and structure of the Church, something that JPII refused to see and (I believe) an awareness that caused BXVI to simply quit because he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to do or the courage to face it.

    Clericalism, the cabal of an all male, mandatory (presumed) celibate caste – who hold all the power of decision over all Catholics and all the power of oversight of each other, who write the rules, interpret them, and enforce them from within their clique.

    Here is a clue for Pope Francis on what to do. Let the laity in, include women and married people; get rid of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood; allow women to be priests and to rise in power and influence inside and as a part of the decision making and authoritative structures of the Church. And, tone down or get rid of the idea of a superior, closer to God “ontologically changed” priesthood. That simply isn’t true.

  • Nice try.

    Wuerl was (barely) bounced by PF.
    He was bounced because of the Pennsylvania AG report, and because his own bad behavior.
    PF’s own letter was the most hesitant letter ever written by a firing boss.

    He’s flaming. And there are so many leaks coming out about him it’s going to be years.

    He raised money..and the hierarchy was happy with including Francis who happily accepted the money from the Papal foundation that Wuerl ran.

  • Nice try, but lying about the historical record isn’t really trying at all, is it?

    “In his 1985 indictment of the Seattle archbishop, Ratzinger summed up accusations gathered in his investigation whose point man in the U.S. was Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, D.C. Among the charges: that Hunthausen had allowed divorced Catholics without annulments to take communion; gave lay people unauthorized influence in shaping programs as ‘a kind of voting process on doctrinal or moral teachings’; permitted intercommunion at weddings and funerals, calling it ‘clearly abusive’; and supported a homosexual group to meet in the cathedral, which risked ignoring the Magisterium’s judgment that same-sex acts were ‘an intrinsic moral evil, intrinsically distorted and self-indulgent.’ In addition to welcoming the gay group to the cathedral, he’d stood up for homosexual dignity in the Seatte Gay News in 1977.

    ~ Ken Briggs, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/mercy-hunthausen

  • Don’t refer to a sharply left leaning tendentious catholic news organization such as ncr as the north star of truth. (Briggs? too much)

    Read the Pennsylannia report!

  • If it took this long after the Pennsylannia AG report and other admissions to get this sort of “response” from the Pope (way late, enormously defensive of a known coverup artist)…..then it will dishearten all the SNAP people into despondency.

    The SNAP people and all the abuse people they try to defend would be justified in being CRUSHED by the pope’s response.

  • Let’s see if I understand your, uh, “logic” here.

    1. Wuerl demonstrates his chops for the Vatican by helping to ax a brother bishop who — according to Cardinal Ratzinger’s own summary of his shortcomings, was too kind to gay people.

    2. Demonstrating his chops by participating in this anti-gay action on the part of the Vatican started Wuerl’s stellar career — with Saint John Paul the Great (at whose electoral conclave Wuerl sat on behalf of Wright) naming him bishop of Seattle.

    3. Cardinal Ratzinger then became Pope Benedict and made Wuerl a cardinal.

    4. It was Cardinal Ratzinger under Saint John Paul the Great who called for the expulsion of gay men from seminaries and who defined gay people as intrinsically disordered. Saint John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict XVI were rabidly anti-gay — and they rewarded and elevated Wuerl for assisting in their attack on Hunthausen for being friendly to gay folks.

    5. But your, um, “logic” demands that we see Wuerl as “flaming,” as gay-friendly, as proof that Francis is gay-friendly, and this is the root of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church?

    Does. Not. Compute.

    Unless we allow hatred to cloud our minds and twist facts into pretzel shapes to conform to our preconceived hatreds.

    For that matter, speaking of your particular vituperations, a few days ago you were depicting gay-friendly Catholic prelates as old, wrinkled, and fat, as half-men lusting after nubile young seminarians.

    Wuerl is old and may be wrinkled. I don’t see an ounce of fat on him.

    You surely shoot wide as you spread your vituperation around, don’t you?

    And do you have any clue about the life of the saint whose name you have purloined for your username, who was so overweight that a specia half circle had to be cut into his refectory table to accommodate his girth?

    What makes anyone who calls herself or himself a Christian so full of venom?

  • I can well imagine, David. Wuerl’s role in that ugly series of events was disgraceful, and it launched his stellar ecclesiastical career — though the fall of his star is a reminder that stars can rise and also fall.

  • Take apart the Post article if you have it in your, after you do your little walk around the shuffleboard court.

  • Adding St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is a scurrilous little endeavor which illustrates the effects of too many years of reading National Catholic Reporter and Bilgrimae.

    “Let the laity in, include women and married people; get rid of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood; allow women to be priests and to rise in power and influence inside and as a part of the decision making and authoritative structures of the Church. And, tone down or get rid of the idea of a superior, closer to God “ontologically changed” priesthood. That simply isn’t true.”

    Except, of course, that a male priesthood and the ontological effects of the sacrament of Orders are de fide in the Catholic Faith.

  • Raymond Hunthausen was fairly examined, exonerated, and restored to his bishopric.

    You bring this up from time to time and try to spin it, but if anything it shows that when credible issues on a bishop arose, both your personally intensely hated Pontiffs provided timely due process and a fair outcome.

  • Oh, great …. The National (not)Catholic Reporter.

    Now there is a real source of unvarnished and objective information.

    You just skip the fact that he was promptly vindicated and returned to his bishopric, and you do so every time you bring it up.

  • Bitter, bitter, bitter.

    Your real gripe is they made it clear that the Church is never going to consider same sex physical congress anything but immorality.

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