With Cardinal Wuerl stepping down, who’s next?

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, pictured in 2015, as the archbishop of Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(RNS) — The buzz about the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who heads the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had a lot to do with his position: technically, as some outlets pointed out, Wuerl is the most highly ranked member of the American Catholic hierarchy to lose his office in the wake of the bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse released in August.

But while the height of Wuerl’s fall is dramatic, his departure was not unexpected. By Sept. 11, after a strained meeting with his diocesan priests, Wuerl revealed his intention to travel to Rome and encourage Pope Francis to accept his resignation. (Like most bishops, he submitted his resignation upon turning 75 three years ago, but the pope decides when to accept them.)

Nor was Wuerl accused of abuse himself. In fact, at first Wuerl defended himself against some of the allegations in the August report that he reassigned priests who abused children to shield them from accountability, and many others noted that he had, while in Pittsburgh, pushed the Vatican to take a tougher stance on child sex abuse. But public backlash over the summer placed the Archdiocese of Washington under intense pressure all the same.

Wuerl’s tumble was far less dramatic than another episode in June, when Pope Francis ordered retired Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor, to cease all public activities following allegations he abused a teenager more than 45 years ago while working in New Jersey as a priest.

Ultimately, the drama surrounding Wuerl’s resignation is only partially about Wuerl himself — it’s also about who’s next. Other bishops, also facing tough questions, could now find themselves beset by calls to follow Wuerl’s example and step down.

In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., 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)

In February, a retired priest from the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., confessed to the The Buffalo News that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys at multiple parishes from the 1960s until the 1980s. Other allegations of abuse have since emerged via reports from Buffalo’s WKBW-TV 7 Eyewitness News and others, prompting Boston Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley to call on the Vatican to investigate Bishop Robert Malone “for the action or inaction of diocesan leadership in Buffalo with regard to the reports of abuse,” a diocesan spokesman told WKBW-TV.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas, and head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is also confronting allegations he ignored rampant sexual abuse of children by a priest under his purview when he was a bishop in Sioux City, Iowa. DiNardo apologized for any failures 16 years ago, admitting that allowing the priest to continue volunteer duties at a church after forced retirement was a “mistake that we regret.”

But DiNardo is now facing a similar issue in Texas, where a priest was arrested in September on charges of sexually abusing children in the region from the late 1990s to early 2000s. DiNardo has been accused of not doing enough to remove the priest from ministry, although the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston argued in a statement that complaints about the cleric were referred to Child Protective Services.

As the scandal builds, Texas dioceses are taking a cue from others who have sought to increase transparency regarding abuse: On Wednesday, it was announced that early next year all 15 dioceses in the state will release the names of clergy who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of a minor.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks at a news conference during the USCCB’s annual fall meeting in Baltimore, on Nov. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Meanwhile, representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — including DiNardo — met with Francis on Sept. 13 to address the issue, saying the American church has been “lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse.” The meeting came on the heels of an announcement by the pope that he is summoning every Catholic bishops’ conference in the world for a summit in February to discuss how best to prevent clergy sex abuse and protect children.

For his part, Francis has proven himself willing, though at times reluctant, to hold the powerful accountable when pressured. After initially defending a Chilean bishop wrapped up in the sexual abuse scandal that swept the nation earlier this year, Francis has since accepted the resignations of seven bishops from the region, two of whom stepped down in September.

The shift, along with Wuerl’s resignation, may signal that Francis could oversee a similar string of departures by leadership in the U.S. Catholic Church or elsewhere, even as the pontiff — along with his predecessor Pope Benedict — continues to field criticism that he mishandled allegations regarding sexual harassment of seminarians by McCarrick.

And according to a statement released after the USCCB meeting, the pontiff is already paying close attention.

“He listened very deeply from the heart,” the statement read.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.


Click here to post a comment

  • Bishops should have terms of six years, renewable for a second term upon evaluation by a committee of their peers, including the laity. Then they should move on or return to parish ministry. Historically, before bishops were bureaucrats, they were pastors of communities. Careerism is the enemy of good pastoral practice.

  • To the contrary, careerism is the father of good pastoral practice.

    Unlike Lutherans outside the apostolic succession and Methodists, among other, Catholics, Orthodox, Assyrians, Oriental Orthodox, and other churches in the apostolic succession see consecration as bishop as permanent rather than an appointment on good behavior or for a term as corporate manager. They are successors to the Apostles.

    The laity, which are not in orders, are therefore not their peers.

  • Actually, the ELCA and TEC have both received the Apostolic Succession from the Old Catholic Church, the Church of Sweden and the Moravian Church, among others who have participated in the episcopal ordinations of both churches.

  • The Catholic Church, Orthodox, and others do not recognize the apostolic succession in either the Church of Sweden or the Moravian Church.

    The reasons, which have to do with rites and intentions, are beyond a short on-line response.

    As you already know the Catholic Church does not recognize the Anglican succession.

    The matter of the Old Catholic Church centered in Utrecht is more complex.

    What began as a schism in the 18th century became a movement in the late 19th century centered in Germany occasioned by the Vatican I Council and a rejection of its definition of papal infallibility.

    Because of the theological position of the Catholic Church on Orders, it recognized their Orders – and therefore their succession – as valid.

    It still recognizes the Orders of the former American branch of the Old Catholic Church – the Polish National Catholic Church – as valid.

    However, the Polish National Catholic Church is no longer in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht due to the latter’s ordination of women.

    Returning to your first paragraph, some but not all bishops of the ELCA and ECUSA can trace their Orders to the Old Catholic Church. This is a result of the efforts of Anglo-Catholics in the early part of the 20th century seeking participation of Old Catholic bishops in Anglican consecrations to remove any doubts about the validity of Anglican Orders.

    But the validity of Orders is not the thrust of my comment.

    That thrust was that particularly the ELCA does not see “consecration as bishop as permanent rather than an appointment on good behavior or for a term as corporate manager”, nor do the Methodists and some other Protestant denominations.

    In their view “bishop” differs not a whit from “pastor” EXCEPT that a “bishop” supervises pastors.

  • “do not recognize the apostolic succession in…” The Copts might have reason to not “recognize” the johnny-come-lately church in Rome either. Deciding who gets to be a real church and who isn’t is the height of arrogance, but has been a common practice since the Council of Jerusalem. It’s a fruitless exercise and has way too often been the occasion for bloodshed. I prefer the expression used by John Paul II, “sister churches”.

  • But if you cannot say with authority who is a True Christian (TM) and who is not, then what is the point of being a Really True Christian (TM)?!?!?!

    The kind of religion practiced by True Christians (TM), as far as I can tell, is all about creating us vs. them, better vs. worse, superior vs. inferior, God’s BFFF vs. You’re No one.

    Just look at the Crue Trishtians posting on these very pages. In fact, here comes one of them now to inform me that I am a horrible person for suggesting the obvious.

  • There are multiple definitions of the term “apostolic succession”.

    The two that I am referencing are:

    The difference between the two is that the Orthdox view the Apostolic Succession as an attribute of a local Church, and a bishop who goes in schism or is cast out of office due to heresy cannot even be considered a bishop in the Church unless and until he adopts a right belief.

  • “Ultimately, the drama surrounding Wuerl’s resignation is only partially about Wuerl himself — it’s also about who’s next. Other bishops, also facing tough questions, could now find themselves beset by calls to follow Wuerl’s example and step down.”

    There are now two reasons a bishop may step down or be removed: one is to have committed abuse; the other is to have covered up abuse. I am not sure how far Pope Francis will go in removing a bishop for covering up abuse if that bishop has not reached retirement age or has not submitted his resignation. But …

    Reported today in Crux, Pope Francis has defrocked two former bishops of Chile, both for actual abuse. Of course, those within the Church who knew about the abuse never informed civil authorities. That would include heads of bishops conferences and most likely several archbishops in Chile, several popes, lots of folks in Vatican dicasteries (CDF, the Congregation for Bishops, and Secretary of State nuncios and heads – at the least). And, of course, the Catholic people of Chile were not informed until recently.

    So here is another layer for Pope Francis to deal with: those who covered-up the cover-up.

    Never ends in a closed system, where the clerical caste makes laws, interprets laws, enforces laws all in ways to protect the clerical caste.

    Should more step down because they covered up? Surely. But that probably includes a creat many current and retired bishops, archbishops, cardinals, popes, heads of dicasteries in the Vatican, papal nuncios (including Vigano), many heads of seminaries, many vicars of clergy in dioceses everywhere, heads of religious orders. So, how is a line drawn? What is “too far” in these circumstances?

    monicadeangelis has a good suggestion for working to change the closed clericalist system. Oversight by lay people. What is absolutely clear is that they cannot be trusted to oversee themselves, not if they will sell out safety of children. Time for structural change – empowerment of lay men and women, married and single, those who have raised children to adulthood, those who actually live the life the all male celibate clericals think they know how to direct.

  • The Copts have never considered the Catholic, Orthodox, or Assyrian as not being the apostolic succession, johnny-come-lately notwithstanding.

    To someone coming from a Baptist background and landing in an Anglican environment I can understand – to an extent – some rankling over the churches who find apostolic succession fundamental, but those lacking it are not “sister churches”.

    From the Catholic perspective a church is headed by a bishop or bishops in the apostolic succession, possesses all the sacraments, and maintains the fundamental Christian Faith.

    Members of those churches may receive communion in the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox, Assyrian, and Polish National Catholic churches are named specifically as meeting those criterion.

  • You really need to (a) find another hobby and (b) stick to posting at JoeMyGod where you actually have something to say on topic.

  • Oversight by lay people is inconsistent with the divine constitution of the Church itself, which is hierarchical and led by successors to the Apostles.

    It has not accomplished what you or your friend seem to believe it would in any denomination which has adopted it, as the sex abuse issues in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada demonstrated.

    Worse, suggesting it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the nature of the Church itself.

  • What else do you need to know?

    Francis praised Wuerl for showing “nobility” under the circumstances.

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

  • You’re reduced to ad hominems and specious claims based on one version of a highly-edited collection of writings with no objective foundation.

  • Bob, the church was formed in a time of Roman god/emperors. It’s shape is based on the time in which that shape was formed and when that form gave it power to spread the Good Word. There is nothing sacred about it. It is convenient to claim that the shape conforms to actions taken by Jesus, but it is an interpretation only. Jesus did not dictate a shape or form.

    What Jesus did do is give the Church a mission. When the organizational shape created by men gets in the way of the Mission directed by Jesus, it is the organizational shape that needs to make the mission possible. It is nice that it worked in the times of emperors, divine right kings, male hegemony, but we live in different times. We are reaching toward greater equality of peoples male and female, skin color, sexual orientation. It is no longer a considered a disability or a sign of inferiority to be left handed. Shoot, the Catholic Church even now considers slavery an evil.

    The Church formed its shape, doctrine, traditions over time and in reaction to the times in which different needs occurred. Shoot, it took a thousand years for the Church to decide that marriage should be a sacrament and the priests should be celibate. If it can create rules based on needs of the time, or the development of new understanding over the first 1000 years, it can keep doing it.

    Oh, and we need to get away from the idea that once something is decided that is the forever answer – some sort of infallibility that can never be imputed to the acts of men. God can be imperfect but humans interpreting what God meant or intended can never be infallible for all time. They can make some pretty good decisions based on understanding of the times, but need to be ready to change when new knowledge or new forms of society take shape.

  • Yes, the Church arose in the time of Roman emperors (Roman gods seems to irrelevant).

    Despite your addiction to culture-based views of nearly everything, that does not mean in and of itself that the entire shape of the Church is based on secular norms or models of the time.

    According to the Church Jesus did dictate certain shapes and forms: seven sacraments, one of which is Orders, the power of the keys, a hierarchical structure, and the apostolic college. That you happen not to like that is really only of interest to yourself.

    Yes, Jesus did give the Church a mission. It was not, as you apparently think, to enact the Democratic Party’s platform.

    No, it did not take the Church a thousand years for the Church to decide that marriage is a sacrament or that the desirable state of priests is celibate.

    Marriage became a sacrament in Christ’s lifetime when with the words in Matthew 19:8-12, which also endorses celibacy. He emphasized that in asking followers to leave family, spouses, and possessions to follow him.

    The concept that “Oh, and we need to get away from the idea that once something is decided that is the forever answer – some sort of infallibility that can never be imputed to the acts of men.” is inconsistent with the nature of the Church, the charisms of the Church, and the teaching of the Church.

    Of course the nature of the Church, the charisms of the Church, and the teaching of the Church are really not matters of interest to you.

  • Jesus did not create “sacraments.” There were things He said and did that are interpreted as “sacraments.” They became symbols of our love and respect for Jesus – that is good. But we humans interpreted them according to our knowledge, wants, and needs at particular points in time and made then “sacraments”. If the Church can “discover” that marriage is a sacrament requiring Church authority to grant after 1000 years of considering it a civil contract – then there is much more that can be “discovered” and we should look at the criteria on which old “discoveries” were made and weigh them against what current knowledge and current needs may be.

    The Church interests me greatly. I stick around because of all that is good about the Catholic faith. But I have no illusions as to its perfection, its presumed infallibility and the holiness of its Traditions.

  • To put this as simply as possible, if one does not believe that Jesus created sacraments, one is not a Catholic.

    The Church did not “discover” marriage to be a sacrament after 1,000 years.

    Unfortunately you continue to rely on substandard, spurious, and in some cases anti-Catholic sources for your information.

  • Perhaps if the priests could get married, this will dramatically reduce these abuses in the future. It’s not natural for man to be alone.

  • “By clericalism I mean an elitist mindset, together with structures and patterns of behavior corresponding to it, which takes it for granted that clerics—in the Catholic context, mainly bishops and priests—are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference. Passivity and dependence are the laity’s lot.

    By no means is clericalism confined to clerics themselves. The clericalist mindset is widely shared by Catholic lay people.”

    Russell Shaw, “Nothing to Hide. Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church”

  • Of course, as a good clericalist papalist, I am sure that you have this posted over your rosary beads:

    “It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”

    Pius X, Vehementer Nos #8 (1906):

  • Careerism and clericalism are two different isms.

    Russell Shaw is not attributing clericalism to the Catholic Church in general but pointing out that it is one of the things which can created problems, and has created problems, within the Church.

    In the past a bishop or pastor was appointed to a diocese or parish for – effectively – life.

    He was able to develop as a spiritual father to his flock, to plan and execute long-term plans, and to know his people.

    The mid-20th century innovation of what amount to “term limits” led to the adoption of a corporate officer model, which in turn led to bureaucrats and ambitious ladder climbers rising to the top. Donald Wuerl is both and his career is Exhibit A as to the downsides.

    Careerism defeats that.

    Members of the clergy are in fact different than other members of the Church in being ordained, possessing charisms and authority which are not shared by the laity.

    Their opinions and teaching on faith and morals deserve appropriate deference.

    That is not clericalism and is not what Shaw describes.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.