Archbishop of Washington resigns over sexual abuse scandal
By Harriet Sherwood
October 12, 2018
| Donald Wuerl, left, with Pope Francis. He is the most senior Catholic figure to quit over the scandal.|
Photo by Gary Cameron
Pope accepts resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl following claims of cover-up
The archbishop of Washington has become the most senior figure in the Catholic church to quit in the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Vatican and embroiled Pope Francis.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation was accepted by the Vatican on Friday after months of mounting pressure, following revelations of systematic abuse by priests in the state of Pennsylvania, and a cover-up by bishops. Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
The state’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, said Wuerl “oversaw and participated in the cover-up”.
Wuerl offered his resignation when he turned 75 almost three years ago, as required under canon law, but Pope Francis kept him in post. He resubmitted his resignation last month.
In a statement, he said his departure “permits this local church to move forward”, adding: “Once again, for any past errors in judgment, I apologise and ask for pardon.”
In an emollient letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, Pope Francis said: “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.
“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
But in a move likely to anger abuse survivors, the pontiff said Wuerl would stay on as the archdiocese’s caretaker until the appointment of his successor. He is also expected to remain a cardinal, helping appoint US bishops and choose Francis’s successor.
Wuerl had attempted to downplay his role in the cover-up of sexual abuse in the state, which was set out in graphic detail in a grand jury report.
The report said he had approved transfers for abusers rather than removing them from ministry, and had withheld information when priests were reported to police and other authorities. He also offered financial support to priests accused of child sexual abuse.
Responding to the report, the cardinal said he had “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse”.
There was also widespread scepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick resigned as a cardinal in July after he was accused of the sexual abuse of two children, following decades of rumours about sexual misconduct with trainee priests. McCarrick, 88, denied the charges.
In August, a retired Vatican diplomat released an incendiary 11-page letter claiming Francis had known of abuse allegations against McCarrick from 2013 but failed to take action.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, 77, a former Vatican ambassador to the US and a conservative within the church, said the pope knew the former archbishop “was a corrupt man, [but] he covered for him to the bitter end”.
Viganò named a string of cardinals and archbishops who he said also knew about the claims. Calling on the pope to resign, he said: “Corruption has reached the very top of the church’s hierarchy.”
The letter galvanised Francis’s many enemies within the church and unleashed a torrent of accusations and personal attacks.
A recent survey of US Catholics by Pew Research Center found confidence in the pope’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis had plummeted.
More than one-third of Catholics believe the pope is doing a “poor” job on the issue of sexual abuse – three times the proportion in 2015.
The proportion of Catholics who have a generally favourable opinion of Francis has fallen by 12 points this year, down to roughly 70%. Only 30% say they have a “very favourable” view of the pope.
Since the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, at least 13 US states have opened official investigations.