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Pope Francis hosts embattled Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Rome, tells him: Talk with your priests

Catholic teachers protest outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in August. The teachers are boycotting Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s annual back-to-school Mass and calling for Wuerl’s resignation and for his archdiocese to submit to an outside probe. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Under scrutiny for his handling of clerical sex abuse, Cardinal Donald Wuerl traveled to Rome last week to meet with Pope Francis, who told him to consult with his priests back home in Washington, sources familiar with the meeting said late Tuesday.

One source familiar with the schedule of Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said the cardinal met one on one with Francis on Thursday about the controversies surrounding Wuerl. The meeting was reported earlier Tuesday on the right-wing Catholic site

The 77-year-old cleric, an ally of the pope who is considered a careful bureaucrat, took a double hit this summer — first with the release in August of a huge Pennsylvania grand jury report alleging that bishops, including Wuerl, covered up and failed to properly handle clergy abusers. Wuerl was the leader of the Pittsburgh diocese before coming to Washington in 2006.

Then, on Aug. 25, a former Vatican ambassador released an unprecedented public letter that alleged popes Francis and Benedict, as well as Wuerl and other top clerics, knew about sexual misconduct by a leading U.S. cleric, former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Vigano said that Benedict had placed restrictions on McCarrick, but Francis later disregarded them. McCarrick remained publicly active even during Benedict’s tenure, however.

Monday night, Wuerl gathered his priests for a conversation about the scandals, which have angered many in the archdiocese, including some clerics who feel Wuerl isn’t coming totally clean on all he knows about the case of McCarrick, his predecessor. McCarrick resigned in July after being accused of abusing two boys as well as harassing and groping seminarians and a young priest. Many have called for his resignation.

There have been several smaller gatherings of priests in recent days to discuss the controversies — and Wuerl’s leadership — but Monday’s was the first one Wuerl hosted. According to three people familiar with what happened at the event — which included a group prayer, Q-and-A and dinner — Wuerl told the priests about his discussion with Francis.

“He asked the Holy Father how to move forward, and they told him he should discern with his priests,” said one person who spoke with priests who attended Monday.

Wuerl hosts an annual Labor Day picnic with his priests, but this year — because of the controversies swirling around him and the church — he sent a letter last week saying “this year is different. While we still need to come together in priestly solidarity, this time we do so not with the accent on joy but with the emphasis on prayer and support for one another. There is a very real sense of being overwhelmed,” he wrote in his invitation to his priests. “I would like us to simply share whatever our thoughts, our feelings, our sense of where we are as brothers bearing a cross together.”

One person who spoke with two priests who were there, and a priest who attended, said attendees were quite split about whether Wuerl should resign, and whether he was to blame.

A priest who attended said the meeting was mostly split between those who felt the public damage to Wuerl may be irreversible and “that we’re past the point of no return” and others who felt Wuerl’s stature and experience were reasons he should stick it out to help move the church into a new phase.

An unexpected aspect of the meeting, this person said, was the rare show of emotion and contrition from Wuerl, who is sometimes described as removed and cautious, not someone quick to share blame.

This could affect priest opinion in a way that is different from how a serious mistake by a leader might play out in a corporate setting, the priest said.

“I think there is something different – or should be – with the church, as there is supposed to be a more paternal relationship [between a bishop and their flock]. If a father disappoints his family, does he leave? Or does he try to fix it? As Christians we believe in the power of redemption and second chances.”

This was the first chance priests had to meet with Wuerl directly since the Vigano letter came out. There were earlier meetings with archdiocesan officials, but Wuerl was not there. The priest who attended said that because Monday’s meeting was in a church, and included prayer, it did not “feel like the time or place” to ask specific questions.

Priests told Wuerl they were wounded by the scandals and didn’t know what to believe. Some told him they found it hard to believe him when he has said he never heard rumors about McCarrick, which had swirled for years. Wuerl has denied hearing anything about sexual misconduct involving McCarrick and has defended his record in Pittsburgh.

The sense from the meeting, the priest and others who spoke with clergy said, was that Wuerl would take his impressions back to Pope Francis, who would make a decision about the cardinal’s status in Washington.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified early reporting on Wuerl’s trip to Rome.