Democracy Dies in Darkness

Acts of Faith

Catholic clergyman calls on Wuerl to resign, says he’ll refuse to participate in Mass with him

September 10, 2018 at 2:37 PM

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Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, Oct. 12, amid scandals over how Wuerl handled sexual abuse claims. (Patrick Martin /The Washington Post)

A highly visible member of Washington’s Catholic clergy has made a dramatic declaration calling on Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign, the latest blow to Washington’s embattled archbishop.

Deacon James Garcia, in his role as a master of ceremonies at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the District, has assisted Wuerl during major liturgies.

But Garcia wrote in a letter to Wuerl, which the deacon published online Saturday, that he refuses to assist in any Mass led by Wuerl. Because deacons vow obedience to their bishop, it is a bold gesture.

“The time for cowardice and self-preservation is long past. Victims cry out for justice and the faithful deserve shepherds who are not compromised. Apology and accompaniment are critical. But no amount of apology will suffice unless and until bishops and other complicit clergy are removed or resign,” Garcia wrote in his letter. And he addressed Wuerl directly: “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to assist you personally, whether as an assisting deacon or a master of ceremony.”

Related: [Calls for Wuerl’s resignation build after archbishop’s accusing letter]

Since a Pennsylvania grand jury in August released a major investigative report cataloging alleged child abuse committed in the state by more than 300 priests, Wuerl — who oversaw some of those  priests during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh before he became archbishop of Washington — has faced calls to resign from numerous corners. A few dozen protesters picketed with signs outside St. Matthew’s and outside the cardinal’s residence. More than 40 Catholic schoolteachers skipped the back-to-school Mass, standing outside instead and demanding that Wuerl step down.

Garcia’s letter, published on a blog run by Garcia’s friend Joelle Casteix, an advocate for clergy sex-abuse victims, adds the voice of a member of the clergy who works closely with Wuerl. And it comes as Wuerl is publicly grappling with the fallout from the grand jury report: He traveled to the Vatican, where Pope Francis advised him to consult his priests about whether he should ask the pope to accept his resignation, then came home and declared a six-week “season of healing.”

Related: [Wuerl calls for a ‘season of healing’]

The week before that season starts, Garcia published his letter online.

Deacons are ordained clergy in the Catholic Church, like priests, but they have different duties. Permanent deacons who are not bound for the priesthood are allowed to marry before ordination, but generally not after. They can baptize children and prepare couples for marriage. Garcia has helped teach classes for adult converts to Catholicism, and as a master of ceremonies, he makes sure that the cathedral’s most elaborate liturgies, with many priests and deacons participating, run smoothly and solemnly. He isn’t in a leadership or advisory role in the archdiocese, but his ritual position at the archdiocesan cathedral puts him in a visible spot.

Garcia, a married Arlington lawyer, began pursuing ordination in 2009 and became a deacon in 2013. He was assigned to the parish at St. Matthew’s, the cathedral in the Archdiocese of Washington.

In the vows of ordination, deacons pledge obedience to their bishop. Five years ago, following the rite of ordination, Garcia knelt down before Wuerl, and Wuerl asked the traditional question: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” Garcia replied: “I do.”

But Garcia said in an interview on Saturday night that he does not believe he is breaking his vow by refusing to participate again in a Mass that Wuerl celebrates. He has discussed his decision with the rector of the cathedral, he said, and he will still read the Gospel aloud and perform his other duties during Masses that Wuerl is not leading. And because Wuerl has not yet ordered him to assist him in Mass, he isn’t disobeying him by declaring he won’t do it, Garcia reasons.

“I won’t any longer be attending personally to the archbishop, but in terms of the other work I do assigned to the cathedral parish, I hope and expect that work will continue,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ve done anything disobedient or disrespectful.”

Related: [New York attorney general issues subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state]

Ed McFadden, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington, declined to comment Saturday night on Garcia’s letter.

Garcia said he knows that some in the church will disagree with his decision and may even challenge whether he is breaking his vows. But he said he thinks that bishops must resign for the church to regain its moral authority, after a season of heartbreak for Catholics nationwide grappling again with the history of widespread child abuse by clergy.

“There is a need for the leaders of the church to take a greater degree of responsibility than they have up till now,” he said. “Genuine healing, both for the victims and for the church more broadly — many of whose members, fair to say, are greatly dismayed, are frustrated, are horrified, are disgusted and, frankly, angry . . . genuine healing requires accountability. And in my mind, accountability means recognizing when one is no longer in the best position to lead.”

In Pittsburgh, according to the grand jury’s findings, Wuerl sometimes went to great lengths to make sure that priests who had been accused of abusing children did not return to churches. But in other cases, Wuerl relied on psychiatrists who said the priests were safe to return to the ministry, and put the priests back to work.

And after Wuerl’s predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, resigned from the College of Cardinals in disgrace this summer because of reports that surfaced that he had sexually harassed minors as well as priests and seminarians, further attention focused on Wuerl. McCarrick’s inappropriate relations with seminarians were widely rumored in certain corners of the church for years, prompting speculation that Wuerl must have known. But Wuerl has said that he never heard about the allegations.

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Garcia’s role at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. He is not the sole person performing the duties of master of ceremonies there. An earlier version also incorrectly stated that deacons in the Catholic Church who do not go on to become priests can marry. Marriage is permissible before ordination, but not after except in rare circumstances with the approval of  the Holy See. This version has been corrected.


Julie Zauzmer is a religion reporter. She previously covered local news at The Washington Post and at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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