Catholic officials in Pittsburgh on Wednesday announced that a local high school would remove the words “Cardinal Wuerl” from its name amid criticism that the prominent cleric mishandled and covered up child sexual abuse by priests.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington, requested that his name be removed from Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School, the Diocese of Pittsburgh said Wednesday in a release.
A petition began a week ago to remove Wuerl’s name following the release of a grand jury report about how six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania handled complaints of child sexual abuse by priests over the past 70 years. The report alleged systematic coverup by leaders, including Wuerl. Pittsburgh, Wuerl’s hometown and one whose diocese he led for 18 years before coming to Washington in 2006, had more accused priests than any of the other dioceses included in the report.
The petition as of Wednesday midday had more than 7,500 signatures.
“In light of the circumstances today and lest we in any way detract from the purpose of Catholic education … I respectfully ask you to remove my name from it,” Wuerl wrote to the school’s board of directors, according to Wednesday’s statement. “In this way, there should be no distraction from the great success of the school and, most importantly, the reason for the school — the students.”
The statement said Wuerl made the request Aug. 16. The school board met Aug. 17 and recommended that Wuerl’s request be met. On Monday the diocese-wide board of Catholic High Schools met and also approved it.
The Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, a diocesan spokesman, said conversation about the school’s name began in early August, when the Diocese of Harrisburg — also in Pennsylvania — announced in advance of the grand jury report that it would remove the names of every bishop since 1947 from every building and room in the diocese named in their honor.
“I acknowledge the sinfulness of those who have harmed these survivors, as well as the action and inaction of those in church leadership who failed to respond to you appropriately and justly,” Harrisburg Bishop Ron Gainer wrote Aug. 1 in announcing the decision.
After the grand jury report came out, “that call intensified” across the state, Vaskov said. Catholics calling the diocese are giving mixed feedback in general, he said; some wanted the name removed, and others did not.
“In general, there is frustration, rage — they use different words. At the same time we have many notes of support. People are trusting in God. They are hopeful the bishop and the church can lead us through this,” he said.
While Wuerl requested the name change, it could have happened without his assent, Vaskov said. “Bishop [David] Zubik was being attentive to all the voices going on,” the spokesman said.
Almost all of the alleged abuse detailed in the 900-page grand jury report, which included hundreds of priests and at least 1,000 victims, happened decades ago, and most of the alleged abusers are no longer in ministry. However, most of the details of the cases — how the priests were handled, to where they were moved around, how the victims were treated, what role bishops and cardinals played — were revealed and made public for the first time in the report. The report, which includes graphic information, has horrified Catholics, many who hoped clerical sex abuse scandals were in the American church’s past.
Wuerl’s name has become central to the Catholic conversation about alleged coverup because of the large number of Pittsburgh cases and because of his current prominence. In addition to serving as archbishop of Washington, the cardinal is a confidant of Pope Francis and a member of the Vatican’s bishop-picking committee.
The two school boards “acknowledged the contributions Cardinal Wuerl has made to Catholic education in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The school was named in honor of Cardinal Wuerl in recognition of his efforts to preserve and expand Catholic education opportunities for the children of Pittsburgh — regardless of religion and regardless of need,” Zubik, who worked with Wuerl, said in the statement.
Zubik said he agreed to the name change in the best interest of the high school. “My concern is first, foremost and always for the students, that nothing overshadows their Catholic education.”
Some who signed the petition suggested Wuerl should step down altogether.
“I believe that anyone who contributed in any way to the abuse of thousands of children does not deserve to be honored, much less held a position of authority in the Catholic Church. Shame on you Cardinal Wuerl!” read one comment.
Only the pope can remove Wuerl from his position, and there is no obvious sign that is imminent. Francis’s unprecedented letter earlier this week to Catholics about clerical sex abuse did not mention the cardinal’s name.
Correction: The bishop of Harrisburg is Ron Gainer. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling.