By Alan Cooperman and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI named Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh yesterday to succeed the retiring Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick as archbishop of Washington, choosing an articulate, affable and politically moderate churchman to fill one of the highest-profile pulpits in the nation.
Like McCarrick, Wuerl has strongly proclaimed the Catholic Church's teachings against abortion, birth control and euthanasia but has not sought to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who take a different position.
Wuerl, 65, established a record of removing sexual abusers from the priesthood during his 18 years running the Pittsburgh diocese. He fought within the Church's courts in the early 1990s to establish a bishop's authority to remove a suspected pedophile from ministry. He also proved to be a tough-minded administrator, closing 100 underpopulated parishes in Pittsburgh and slashing expenses to eliminate a $2 million deficit.
In Washington, he takes over a financially sound archdiocese that has fewer Catholics -- 560,000 compared with Pittsburgh's 800,000 -- but where national and international issues loom larger.
Asked about his priorities, he told reporters that "being a bishop is the same wherever you are. There is sort of a built-in game plan . . . and it goes all the way back to the charge that Jesus gave his apostles: to teach, to help lead his flock and to help sanctify his flock, himself included."
Wuerl will be installed June 22 as the sixth archbishop of Washington, a position that traditionally puts him in line to become a cardinal.
In the interim, McCarrick, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 last year, will continue to run the archdiocese. He said he "could not be more pleased" with the pope's choice of Wuerl.
"You will find him to be, in every way, one of the great churchmen of the United States," McCarrick said, standing by Wuerl's side at a news conference at the archdiocese's headquarters in Hyattsville. "His time with us will be a golden age in grace and in progress."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center and former editor of the liberal Jesuit magazine America, called Wuerl's appointment "a vote for continuity."
"He and McCarrick are pretty much in the same place on issues, especially the one that's of most concern to Catholic Democrats on the Hill -- that they'll still be able to go to Communion," Reese said. "He's totally in line with the pope on Church teaching, but he's not going to be heavy-handed. And he's just a nice guy."
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things and a leading conservative in the Church, also praised the choice. Wuerl, he said, is "a very personable and articulate fellow, well able to teach the truths of the Catholic faith, a skilled catechist. A good man."
Wuerl, who keeps fit by swimming 50 laps a day and said his only hobby is reading medieval history, treaded a cautious line through hot-button issues in his first grilling by the Washington media, noting several times that he was "not good at sound bites."
On immigration, he said the Church stands for "the dignity and worth of each person" and for respecting "human needs." But, unlike McCarrick and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, he did not call for legislation to give the country's 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship or denounce proposals to make it a crime to aid such people.
"I just would like to continue to hold up that whatever is worked out, it has to be done in the context of the dignity of each person," Wuerl said.
In announcing the appointment of Wuerl, the Vatican, following procedure, did not say who else had been considered for the post. But two of the other bishops said by Church sources to have been considered, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, were among the handful of U.S. prelates who called during the 2004 presidential election for a tougher line against the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), because of his voting record on abortion.
Kerry took Communion at least once during the campaign at a suburban Pittsburgh church, St. Scholastica's, near his wife's country estate. Its pastor, the Rev. Robert G. Duch, said yesterday that neither he nor Wuerl knew that Kerry was coming to Mass.
"But afterwards, I met with Bishop Wuerl . . . and Bishop Wuerl told me I had done the right thing," Duch said.
"His position is that a priest cannot judge people coming up for Holy Communion because we do not know the status of their soul. The onus is on the individual to decide whether they're fit to take Communion."
Wuerl represents the "model of an older, mature bishop who says 'I'm first a servant of the Church, I'm not a servant of an ideology,' " said Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper.
A native of Pittsburgh, Wuerl was ordained in 1966 and made a bishop by Pope John Paul II 20 years later. His first assignment was as auxiliary bishop of Seattle, a tricky proposition because the Vatican wanted him to rein in the liberal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen but did not give him clear authority to do so.
When Wuerl was sent to Pittsburgh two years later, he inherited a scandal over three priests who had sexually abused two altar boys. Ignoring the advice of his attorneys, he met with the victims' family and quickly removed the priests from ministry. In 1995, he flew to Rome to demand a re-hearing when a Church court ruled that he had improperly removed another accused priest who was eventually defrocked.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group for victims, said she appreciated that Wuerl "fought with the Vatican to get a priest removed from the priesthood."
But, she said, he also put a great deal of energy into "public relations" for his diocese, including a 30-minute television program in 2004 defending the Church's handling of sex abuse. "We felt he was working on spinning the Church's position rather than using those resources to prevent future abuse," she said.
But Bishop David A. Zubik of Green Bay, Wis., who was an auxiliary bishop under Wuerl for six years, said there is no artifice in Wuerl's devotion to the Church.
Calling him "one of the hardest workers I've ever met," Zubik said Wuerl "sees his role not as a job but as a life."