Catholic teachers on Tuesday added their voices to the escalating calls for the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, to resign after a one-two punch of major scandals for the church implicated the cardinal in covering up sexual abuse.
First, a sweeping investigation in Pennsylvania, documenting abuse by 300 priests over the course of 70 years, focused attention on Wuerl’s mixed record of dealing with abusive priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
And then Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in a dramatic and largely unverified letter that is rattling the Catholic Church, included a charge that Wuerl knew about alleged sexual misconduct committed by his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick. Wuerl has denied knowing of anything about misconduct until McCarrick was suspended this summer.
The alleged misconduct in question involved young priests and seminarians, although this summer McCarrick was accused of abusing two minors as well.
“We’re demanding that Cardinal Wuerl step down,” said Jack Devlin, one of more than 40 Catholic-school teachers who demonstrated against Wuerl outside the annual back-to-school Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Tuesday morning. “How can I face my students, one, with this on the table and, two, when we tell them to speak up for what’s right, if I don’t lead by example?”
Other groups of a few dozen protesters have shown up calling for Wuerl’s resignation in the past week outside his residence and outside Sunday Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. And D.C. attorney general Karl A. Racine told City Paper reporter Tom Sherwood that he thinks Wuerl should step aside pending investigation; the attorney general said on WAMU-FM (88.5) that his “phone has been burning up” with Washingtonians calling for an investigation similar to Pennsylvania’s inquiry into the Catholic Church.
In a statement to The Post, Racine said that his office “is reviewing the findings of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report and we will consider taking action if appropriate.” A spokesperson for the office of the Attorney General for Maryland, which includes a sizable chunk of the archdiocese, told The Post that it does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.
Wuerl has defended his record in his public statements. The day that the Pennsylvania grand-jury report came out, the Archdiocese of Washington posted a new website specifically to highlight Wuerl’s positive contributions toward protecting children from abuse; the website was soon taken down. After Viganò’s letter, the archdiocese released a statement in which Wuerl defended himself again.
Viganò alleges that Pope Benedict XVI imposed sanctions on McCarrick for sexual harassment in 2009 or 2010, ordering the former archbishop of Washington to a life of prayer and penance. He says Pope Francis deliberately let those sanctions slide.
He mentions Wuerl in his letter, saying that the cardinal was “obviously” informed of Benedict’s sanctions of McCarrick because Viganò found it “unthinkable” that the Vatican ambassador who preceded him in Washington would not have told Wuerl. Viganò says he brought the matter up himself to Wuerl on several occasions. “I certainly didn’t need to go into detail because it was immediately clear to me that he was fully aware of it,” he wrote. And he said about Wuerl: “His recent statements that he knew nothing about it, even though at first he cunningly referred to compensation for the two victims, are absolutely laughable. The Cardinal lies shamelessly.”
Wuerl reiterated in his statement that he never heard about any sanctions from Benedict on McCarrick and that no one ever reported abuse by McCarrick to him in his years in Washington. Instead, he suggested, Viganò’s time as the apostolic nuncio in Washington ought to be investigated as part of a broader church inquiry that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for regarding sexual abuse.
Numerous other bishops, facing calls from concerned Catholics for criminal investigations and mass resignations in their dioceses, have responded to Viganò’s letter, with some urging caution about believing the inflammatory claims and others indicating they find it credible.
One incident that Viganò points to as evidence that Wuerl knew about McCarrick’s behavior was a scheduled event in which McCarrick was supposed to meet with young men considering seminary. Viganò said in the letter that he saw an ad for the event and called Wuerl, and Wuerl said he would make sure it was canceled. Viganò said he saw that as indicating that Wuerl knew why McCarrick should not hold such a meeting.
On Monday, archdiocese spokesman Edward McFadden said that Wuerl canceled the event because Viganò told him to but that Wuerl did not know why. “When the emissary of the Holy Father makes a request, it’s typically not ignored,” McFadden said. Asked whether Wuerl inquired more from Viganò, or whether Wuerl suspected the cancellation request had anything to do with the rumors that had swirled around McCarrick, McFadden said: “No. I’ve asked him that.”
Viganò also said that McCarrick was supposed to move out of his residence at a seminary. A person with direct knowledge about McCarrick said the cardinal did move from the seminary at Redemptoris Mater, in suburban Maryland, sometime in the years after his 2006 retirement. He then moved into the St. Thomas the Apostle parish rectory in Woodley Park, but only for a few months. After that, he moved to a seminary in nearby Chillum, Md.
Even after moving out, McCarrick kept an office at Redemptoris Mater until just a few months ago, the person said. After a stroke and a bad fall a couple of years ago, McCarrick moved to the Jeanne Jugan Residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington.
The demonstrators outside the Sunday Mass at St. Matthew’s held pointed signs that included direct calls for Wuerl’s resignation, but the schoolteachers outside the Basilica on Tuesday were more subtle. Their posters were printed with biblical quotes about seeking justice.
“I’m here to support my students,” said Elizabeth Nolan, one of the teachers. “I want to stand up for them and to show them that if there’s injustice, to stand up.”
Nick Rosenberger, who teaches sixth- and seventh-graders, said he was thinking about what he would tell them when school starts Wednesday. “I can’t go back to them if all I’m doing is praying and asking for their forgiveness,” he said.
Inside the Basilica, Wuerl didn’t attend the back-to-school Mass that he has typically led in past years; an archdiocese spokeswoman said she couldn’t say why he did not celebrate the Mass. And outside, Rosenberger stood on the corner with the other teachers, most of them from the Jesuit school Holy Trinity in Northwest Washington. “We can’t trust an institution that allows people who were part of coverups to remain in positions where they failed to protect those who needed their protection most,” he said.
Wuerl submitted his retirement paperwork in 2015, when he turned 75, as the Vatican requires of all bishops. He could request that the pope accept his resignation, if he wanted to step down, but only Francis can choose when Wuerl leaves his position. Vatican spokesmen have not responded to questions about whether Francis would consider removing Wuerl.
This post has been updated.