Wuerl Resigns, Ending Influential Tenure in Wake of Abuse Report

By Joshua J. McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
October 12, 2018

Cardinal Donald Wuerl delivers a homily during a 2017 Mass at St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, ending a storied, five-decade career of one of the U.S. Catholic Church's most dedicated and powerful prelates after a Pennsylvania grand jury report sparked outcry over his handling of abusive priests in the early 1990s.

While the short Oct. 12 note from the Vatican press office announcing the move did not explain the reasons behind the pontiff's decision, a separate letter to the cardinal from Francis portrayed it as a reluctant one, made at Wuerl's insistence.

In the letter, released by the Washington archdiocese, the pontiff tells the cardinal he saw in the request to resign "the heart of the shepherd" and asks Wuerl to remain on as Washington's apostolic administrator, pending appointment of his successor.

"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 tells Wuerl. "However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you."

Wuerl's resignation comes as Francis is under intense global scrutiny over his handling of clergy abuse cases after a Vatican ambassador released a document in August alleging a systemic cover-up of allegations against now ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl's predecessor in Washington.

The Vatican has sharply disputed the ambassador's accusations, calling them a "political frame job" against the pope, who has also now promised a "thorough study" of the Vatican's archives for all materials regarding McCarrick.

Wuerl, who is 77 and was appointed to his role in Washington by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, had been a relatively popular figure in the capital until the Aug. 14 release of the grand jury report, which examined his actions as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006.

Although the report credited Wuerl with fighting Vatican officials for years to ensure that one abusive priest was not allowed back into ministry, it also raised questions about his actions regarding several other priests who he was informed were accused of inappropriate conduct.

Wuerl's resignation was received as somber news to some who had worked closest with the cardinal.

Daughters of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, who has served as president of the DC-based Catholic Health Association since 2005, said it will be a "real loss" that Wuerl is no longer leading the Catholic Church in Washington.

"I believe he's done a wonderful job," said Keehan, who has also served as a member of the archdiocese's finance committee under Wuerl and his two immediate predecessors.

The healthcare professional said that because of his actions fighting the Vatican to keep one abusive priest out of ministry in Pittsburgh, Wuerl came to Washington with a reputation "as a guy that doesn't brook any nonsense, particularly in this area."

"I think he came here with everybody having a sense of this is the kind of guy that he is," she said. "He's a very competent manager, as well as very strong in the spiritual part of his mission."

Nicholas Cafardi, an original member and chair of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board, set up in 2002 to monitor the prelates' procedures to protect children, called Wuerl's resignation "an undeserved end to a really fine churchman, a fine bishop."

Cafardi, a civil and canon lawyer from Pittsburgh who has known Wuerl since they lived in Rome at the same time in the 1970s, said that in his view the cardinal "never failed to react to a complaint of child sexual abuse."

Cafardi also noted that some right-wing Catholic groups have been expressing opposition to Wuerl, and calling for his resignation, since at least 2004, when the then-bishop said he would not refuse Communion to then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic who supported abortion rights.








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