Embattled over his handling of clergy sex abuse, D.C.’s Cardinal Wuerl calls for ‘season of healing’

By Michelle Boorstein And Susan Svrluga
September 08, 2018

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, enters church for Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Wdnesday in Washington.
Photo by Kevin Wolf

Facing criticism and questions about his handling of clergy sex abuse issues, Washington’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has announced plans to launch a six-week-long “Season of Healing” beginning Friday.

Wuerl relayed the plan, for the region’s 139 parishes holding special prayer services, in a letter to his priests on Thursday. It was distributed via an Internet mailing list for priests of the archdiocese, and someone close to a priest provided a copy to The Washington Post.

Catholics are closely watching Wuerl’s actions and words after the release of an explosive grand jury report in Pennsylvania that alleges that over seven decades more than 1,000 children had been abused by priests in six dioceses, including the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  Wuerl led that diocese for 18 years before coming to Washington in 2006. The report shows that in some instances Wuerl went well beyond the norm in trying to push out predators but that in others he allowed an abuser to remain in ministry.

Wuerl’s critics have also questioned what he knew about the behavior of his now-resigned predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused this summer of abusing youth and sexually harassing adult seminarians.

Wuerl’s letter followed a private meeting he held with his priests last week, in which he told them about his recent meeting with Pope Francis. Wuerl typically hosts a Labor Day picnic, but this year, given the controversies, he told those gathering that the emphasis would not be on joy, but on support and prayer.

In the letter written Thursday, he thanked the priests and said he had clearly heard their support for survivors, for people in the archdiocese and for him, but that the purpose of the meeting was to discern how he could best serve the church. Some said the archdiocese would be best served by new leadership, “to help move beyond the current confusion, disappointment and disunity.” Others had called for the beginning of healing, he wrote. “This I believe we need to do now.”

The letter was the subject of discussion among priests and other Catholics this weekend.

Some people deeply involved in the archdiocese felt it signaled Wuerl’s understanding that he must resign — while others interpreted his words very differently.

“I think what he’s saying there is he hears the consensus that it may be time for him to step down,” said a priest in the archdiocese who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a private meeting. “This depends on the pope — it’s not something [Wuerl] can quickly decide this afternoon.”

Wuerl submitted his retirement paperwork in 2015, when he turned 75, as the Vatican requires of all bishops. He could request that the pope accept his resignation, if he wanted to step down, but only Francis can choose when Wuerl leaves his position.

That priest described the meeting between Wuerl and the priests on Monday as respectful and loving, even on the part of those those asking him to step down. Wuerl listened with openness and was moved to tears, he said. “No one spoke in a harsh or accusatory way.” The priest, who also became emotional in speaking about the meeting and the ongoing scandal, said they mourn for the victims and feel respect for Wuerl, even if they agree he must go.

Another priest in the archdiocese who also spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “I think if the mentality is that this ‘Season of Healing’ [will end with] people trusting him or feeling comfortable with him shepherding the archdiocese — if that’s the thought process, I think it’s mistaken. I think people see it as almost kind of a cynical ploy, to distract from the questions that have yet to be answered.”

He said many people in the pews, as well as himself, feel that Wuerl needs to pay the consequences for things he has done wrong. If there isn’t a change in leadership, he said, that dissatisfaction will intensify greatly, and people will lose faith in the church.

“There’s still not a long-term solution,” said Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, who has said that while Wuerl had been a great leader for the archdiocese, it is time for him to step down. She said the letter sounded sorrowful, rather than defensive, as she felt two earlier messages had been. “There’s a note of anguish that I think all of us can hear.”

The “Season of Healing” would begin Friday, with Wuerl leading a penitential Mass. He called it an invitation for parishioners to unite in prayer and give voice to the pain of survivors of clergy abuse “while recognizing the pain and wound of the whole Church.”

Wuerl wrote that he would also send resources they could use, such as guidance from the Child Protection Advisory Board and other experts on  how best to respond to survivors who reach out and help with their healing. They will have a one-day healing retreat, with counselors on hand, for any survivors who wish to attend.

He told the priests, “I know the path to healing will be long and arduous.”


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