The shoe finally dropped for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, but it hasn’t quite hit the floor yet. Pope Francis accepted the embattled prelate’s resignation after becoming the focal point of fury over a Pennsylvania grand jury report into decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in six Catholic dioceses. The report mentioned Wuerl more than 150 times in its investigation in detailing the cases of several priests who were allowed to continue their ministry despite complaints about sexual abuse, in several cases with Wuerl’s direct knowledge.
However, Wuerl won’t be gone immediately. Crux’ John L. Allen tells CNN that Francis has asked Wuerl to remain as “apostolic administrator” of the Washington DC archdiocese until his replacement can be named. The pontiff also sent a personal letter praising Wuerl’s “nobility,” which will undoubtedly increase criticism of Wuerl and the Vatican:
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the embattled archbishop of Washington, ending weeks of mounting speculation and rising anger over Wuerl's role in two clergy sexual abuse scandals.@JohnLAllenJr has more. pic.twitter.com/amAXZ9UuLP
— New Day (@NewDay) October 12, 2018
The Wall Street Journal’s Francis X. Rocca and Ian Lovett report on Francis’ remarks, in which he claims that Wuerl could have mounted a defense against the charges. That might be news to the grand jury:
The Vatican didn’t immediately name a new archbishop of Washington, but in a letter released by the Archdiocese of Washington, the pope asked the cardinal to continue to serve on an interim basis until a replacement is appointed. The pope also praised Cardinal Wuerl’s “nobility” in choosing to step down rather than defend his record under fire. …
Cardinal Wuerl asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation on several occasions since the Pennsylvania report, but the pope demurred until now, according to a church official with knowledge of the discussions.
In his letter, Pope Francis said Cardinal Wuerl’s choice to step down reflected the “heart of the shepherd” who seeks church unity over “sterile division sown by the father of lies,” the devil, who “wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.”
The cardinal could have plausibly defended himself against charges of coverup and negligence, the pope wrote, yet chose not to do so.
“Of this, I am proud and thank you. In this way, you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first,” the pope wrote to the cardinal. “Your resignation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.”
That’s certainly one take. For those who read the grand jury report, however, it doesn’t comport with the facts at hand. Wuerl at times acted with authority to deal with abusive priests (more on this below), but in several cases allowed such priests to escape scrutiny and in a few to continue as priests in good standing elsewhere — and to continue abusing others. As for not attempting to defend himself, Wuerl didn’t mind when the archdiocesan office did it for him. In the immediate aftermath of the report’s release, the archdiocese published a website attempting to defend Wuerl’s record, a move that brought widespread condemnation. The website was quickly taken down.
Now Wuerl is on his way out, but he’s not gone yet. He’ll be in charge in the DC archdiocese until the Vatican appoints a new archbishop to replace him. John Allen also thinks that he won’t really be out even then:
Before the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in mid-August, the book on Donald Wuerl would have been that he was among the most influential churchmen in American Catholicism over the last fifty years, and arguably the single most important of the last 20. He was often the glue holding a divided bishops’ conference in America together, and he was also the most important interpreter and ally of Pope Francis in a sometimes-skeptical Catholic culture in the US.
On the abuse crisis, Wuerl also would have been as among the more aggressive American bishops in supporting and implementing a “zero tolerance” policy – ironically, a reputation that reached back to his time as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
Those things remain as true today as they were two months ago when the fracas around his record in Pittsburgh began, and despite everything that’s happened since – including the Pennsylvania Attorney General publicly calling him a liar, calls for his resignation from some of his own priests, and so on – those other aspects of his story haven’t lost their relevance. …
For the last five years, Wuerl has also been the single most important voice within the US hierarchy defending Pope Francis, at a time when some other American bishops and Catholic leaders have struck discordant notes. His loyalty no doubt helps explain why Francis went out of his way today to shower Wuerl with praise, saying, among other things, he’s putting “the good of the Church” above his own personal interests.
Finally, it’s important to say this: If Pope Francis’s letter today makes anything clear, it’s that he hasn’t lost any respect or esteem for Wuerl – if anything, he appears to hold him in even higher regard for the “nobility” of his exit.
That could mean Wuerl’s role as a “chief conduit” between the U.S. Church and Francis will stay in place, and his influence with the pope is unlikely to be diminished – if anything, since his retirement may afford him more time in Rome, it might even grow.
Be sure to read all of Allen’s analysis. If the Vatican moves quickly to replace Wuerl, it will help calm the furor. If the pope allows Wuerl to linger, however, it’s not going to be good for anyone.