Editorial: The Pope Ignores the Damage as Another Prelate Falls

The New York Times
October 12, 2018

Others were more complicit in covering up priestly abuse, but Cardinal Donald Wuerl still committed serious mistakes.

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In his letter on Friday accepting the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, Pope Francis praised the departing prelate for his “nobility” in not trying to defend “mistakes” in his handling of sexual-abuse allegations.

The pope misses the point.

The archbishop may not be as culpable as other bishops who more systematically covered up sexual predation, and in at least one case he took action that was initially thwarted by the Vatican.

But a devastatingly detailed grand jury report on widespread child sex abuse in Pennsylvania churches showed that Cardinal Wuerl, as bishop of Pittsburgh, was immersed in a clerical culture that hid pedophilic crimes behind euphemisms, conducted unprofessional investigations and evaluations of accused priests, kept acknowledged cases of sex abuse secret from parish communities and avoided reporting the abuse to police.

In an anguished letter to his archdiocese, Cardinal Wuerl accepted responsibility for actions described in the grand jury report. “I wish that I could redo some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and each time get it right,” he wrote.

Pope Francis’ warm feelings for Cardinal Wuerl may be understandable, given that the archbishop has been a supporter of the social changes the pope is trying to achieve in the Catholic Church. Conservative prelates who have fought those changes have accused the pope of covering up accusations that the previous archbishop of Washington, the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, sexually harassed and abused seminarians. Cardinal Wuerl’s standing was weakened by his association with his predecessor, although he insists he knew nothing about the allegations. Pope Francis saw Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation as a sacrifice for the good of the church amid the attacks by critics like Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States who has vigorously pressed charges of a church cover-up.

Yet by indicating that he regards Cardinal Wuerl’s past actions simply as “mistakes,” and by allowing him to remain a member of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, the pope reinforces the sense that he does not understand the extraordinary damage done by clerics who cruelly and shamelessly abused their power over trusting children and adults. What the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other reports chronicle is not “inappropriate contact,” as diocesan records so often claimed, but the brutal and repeated rape of innocents who have been marked by this for life.

More on the Vatican and sexual abuse by priests.

Pope Francis was similarly slow to understand the gravity of sexual abuse cases in Chile, initially defending bishops and acting only after he listened to survivors.

To restore the trust of its faithful and its standing in the world, the Vatican needs to make a more vigorous and sincere effort to acknowledge the damage done by abusive priests and Vatican officials who perpetuated the abuse.

Cardinal Wuerl seemed to understand this when he said he was making way for younger bishops consecrated since the crisis burst into the open in 2002, and for that he deserves credit.

But if the church is to make amends for the scars it has inflicted on thousands of its members, the pope must do a far better job of demonstrating at every opportunity that there is no “nobility” whatsoever in the way sexual predation was allowed to spread through the church, that he will not tolerate the slightest of “mistakes” in the handling of such abuse and that he will upend a rotten Vatican culture that let it all happen.


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