In the week since a Pennsylvania grand jury reported on child sex abuse by Catholic priests, Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s reputation has taken a brutal hit.
Wuerl, an outwardly mild priest and meticulous manager who picks every word carefully when he speaks, has become for the moment the face of a ballooning crisis in the Catholic Church. And unlike the quiet protests and longings for change of past decades, Catholics in 2018 are demanding accountability — and fast.
“Particularly among people who have stuck with the church this long, who have been through it all, they are saying: ‘God, we cannot go through this again,’ ” said John Allen, who has written multiple books on the Vatican and the U.S. church and now runs the Catholic website Crux. “And my read is that this crowd is not going to be satisfied with assurances. They want to see something real.”
For the past 18 months or so, Allen said, mounting scrutiny of the role of two cardinals in allegedly covering up clergy sex abuse in Chile has trained Catholic attention on the church hierarchy. “And now it’s symbolized by the case of Donald Wuerl.”
By “it,” Allen is not referring to the abuse by priests, who in the vast majority of cases were ultimately removed from church life for alleged abuse decades ago. He is talking about coverups by their leaders — bishops and cardinals who have not been held accountable for moving abusers around and continuing to protect and pay them, favoring protection of the institutional church over devastated victims.
The 900-page report mentions Wuerl more than 200 times and challenges the image Wuerl has tried to project of a leader who always stood with victims.
It shows that in some instances he went well beyond the norm in trying to push out predators, perhaps most notably when he went all the way to the Vatican to fight an order that he reinstate a priest named Anthony J. Cipolla — and won.
But in other cases, the report alleges that Wuerl coddled flagged priests — in one case allowing an accused abuser to remain in ministry and in another presiding over a settlement agreement that banned the victims from speaking. It cites the case of William O’Malley, whom Wuerl gave a church job and loaned money, even though the priest had sexual trouble in his past. Victims later came forward alleging abuse in the years after Wuerl had returned O’Malley to ministry, the report says.
On Monday, Wuerl’s spokesman, Ed McFadden, and his attorney, Mickey Pohl, said the grand jury report has painted the cardinal unfairly, when he was simply following the norms of the day — whether that was coming to confidential settlements with victims or not reporting certain complaints to police. “The report intentionally seeks to create the worst possible outcome in media coverage for someone like his eminence,” McFadden said.
Some priests have said they plan to appeal the report in court this fall.
The Pittsburgh Diocese — and Wuerl — have been a focus since the report’s release last Tuesday. Of the six dioceses included, it had the largest number of accused priests named — 68 from the diocese, and another 22 priests and brothers from religious orders who were from the Pittsburgh area.
Pope Francis on Monday took what some abuse advocates say is an unprecedented step toward accountability. In the first papal letter ever to the world’s Catholics on the topic of clergy sex abuse, Francis ended his silence on the Pennsylvania report and said church leaders “showed no care for the little ones.”
The letter did not list specific actions he would take, but the pope clearly described abuse as “crimes” and used the term “coverup” twice, noted Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who served on a papal commission about clergy sexual abuse of children. “There is an acceptance that the coverup is a fact,” she said. “Until now, deniers and defenders within the clergy and outside have denied the coverup. Now the pope actually said it: It’s a fact.”
Pressure from the outside is increasing the possibility for change, she said. “Now the fact that ordinary Catholics are beginning to raise their voices as well, that’s putting pressure that hasn’t been before. There is so much anger.”
The country’s political divisions also are seeping into the debate and serving to heighten calls for accountability. Wuerl and his predecessor in Washington, Theodore McCarrick, who resigned as cardinal after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused boys and harassed or inappropriately touched men, have become proxies to conservatives who distrust Francis and think he is too open on issues that include abortion and homosexuality.
What this will all mean for Wuerl is unclear.
As is required of all bishops, Wuerl submitted his retirement paperwork when he turned 75, in 2015. If anything, his star has risen since, especially as an ally of Francis. He sits on the Vatican’s powerful bishop-picking committee and is understood to be a confidant of the pope.
The decision on Wuerl’s standing rests exclusively with Francis, and Vatican spokesmen have ignored requests for comment on the question.
The pope was already reviewing the case of McCarrick, who was the subject of widespread rumors about inappropriate behavior among seminarians for many years. When McCarrick was suspended in June, two New Jersey dioceses revealed that they had settled two cases in court with adult accusers of McCarrick in 2004 and 2007. That has brought Wuerl under intense questioning about whether he knew about the rumors or settlements, and he has denied it.
Meanwhile, since the release of the grand jury report, Wuerl is finding himself increasingly embattled in the Archdiocese of Washington. On Monday afternoon, Wuerl called a meeting with his priest council. Several priests in the archdiocese who spoke on the condition of anonymity said opinion on the cardinal is mixed: Some feel his efforts on abuse aren’t being portrayed fairly, while others think they were insufficient.
Critics have complained that Wuerl showed a disturbing tone-deafness after the grand jury report was released Aug. 14. He immediately put out a statement saying he believed the report “confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.” That night the archdiocese posted a website, TheWuerlRecord.com, defending the cardinal. It has since been taken down.
Later that week, Wuerl told Salt + Light Television that he didn’t think “this is some massive, massive crisis.”
As of Monday night, 6,800 people had signed a change.org petition to remove his name from the title of Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh. The Rev. Nick Vaskov, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese, said the school’s board met and discussed the removal of Wuerl’s name. They will announce their decision in a few days, he said.
Wuerl had been slated to give the keynote speech this week at the World Meeting of Families, a high-profile event held once every three years. The talk was titled “The Welfare of the Family Is Decisive for the Future of the World.” The Irish Times reported Saturday that Wuerl was withdrawing, without giving a reason. Wuerl’s press office declined to comment.
Some Catholic leaders have expressed concern that the controversy surrounding Wuerl could harm the church’s social service work. Some parishes Sunday beseeched parishioners not to withhold money as a way to punish the archdiocese.
But Monsignor John Enzler, president and chief executive of the region’s Catholic Charities, said Monday that he’s heard from only a few Catholics who want to be sure their donations aren’t going to legal fees and settlements related to abuse. He feels Wuerl did the best he could, using the psychological and legal guidance of experts of the era.
“He has integrity and care and commitment to honesty. I don’t think he’d say he’s done all the right things, but he did his best,” Enzler said. “It may seem like he made some wrong decisions, and maybe he did, but he didn’t mean to.”
Catholics calling for accountability in recent days have focused not only on the removal of high-ranking leaders but also a much-expanded role for lay Catholics, and for non-Catholic expert outsiders.
The Most Rev. Edward Scharfenberger, bishop of Albany, N.Y., said earlier this month that lay people, not bishops, should lead inquiries into allegations of misconduct by U.S. bishops. John Garvey, president of Catholic University — the U.S. bishops’ university — told The Washington Post on Monday that reform needs to be lay-led. “Most bishops are good and holy men, but as a group they have lost a lot of trust because of the actions of the ones being reported on,” he said.
In a letter to the school Saturday, Garvey called to students: “The Church is experiencing a moment of real crisis. I encourage you to prepare yourselves to take on key roles in rebuilding Christ’s Church.”
Some are saying that resignation should not be an option for Wuerl or other high-ranking Catholic officials if they are deemed culpable of covering up sex abuse. Instead, they should be forced out, they say.
Collins referred to the unprecedented resignation of a cardinal this summer.
McCarrick’s resignation “could only be brought about by a pope,” Collins said. “Until recently, bishops would not have considered resigning. It’s just not in the culture of the church to fall on your sword. Within the church that would be seen as strong punishment, even though looking from the outside, I believe they should have to pay a much higher penalty.”
It seems unlikely Wuerl will be out of office anytime soon.
Pope Francis’s comments Monday didn’t mention Wuerl. Neither did those last week of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said he is inviting the Vatican to investigate McCarrick’s case.
But even Wuerl supporters like Enzler don’t categorically dismiss the idea that the cardinal should step down. “That’s a very tough question,” he said. “I’d defer to his own judgment. He will do what’s best for the church. I believe this.”
Reis Thebault contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the media outlet that interviewed Cardinal Donald Wuerl when he said the Catholic Church was not in a “massive, massive crisis” about sex abuse. The comment was made to Salt + Light Television, not Fox5-DC.