Cardinal Donald Wuerl speaks at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington in 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

WHEN ALLEGATIONS came to light last year of sexual abuse and inappropriate conduct involving children and seminarians by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who succeeded Mr. McCarrick as leader of the Washington archdiocese, expressed shock and denied prior knowledge. Now it turns out Mr. Wuerl was presented in 2004 with an account of Mr. McCarrick’s alleged misconduct, which he relayed to the Vatican. Then: nothing.

In the ongoing tsunami of revelations about the Catholic Church’s willful blindness, conspiracy of silence and moral bankruptcy on clergy sex abuse, this particular revelation may count as little more than a droplet — although it does involve two of the highest-ranking and most prominent American prelates. However, it also encapsulates characteristics that continue to dog the church nearly two decades after the scandal burst into the open: callousness directed at victims; an insistence on denial and hairsplitting; and the hierarchy’s preference for treating allegations as internal matters, as if the world’s 1.2 billion lay Catholics were an irrelevance.

In response to the revelation that Mr. Wuerl was fully aware of, and handled, an allegation from a former priest about Mr. McCarrick’s misconduct more than 14 years ago, the Washington archdiocese issued a statement suggesting that his previous flat denials were merely “imprecise.” Those previous statements referred only to sexual abuse of a minor, the archdiocese said.

In fact, the cardinal’s comments last summer were unequivocal. In response to a broad question about “long-standing rumors or innuendos” posed by a reporter for the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic Standard, he said, “I had not heard them” before or during his tenure in Washington. That was untrue.

As it happens, Mr. Wuerl, then-bishop of Pittsburgh, not only was presented with allegations of Mr. McCarrick’s misconduct by a former priest named Robert Ciolek. To his credit, he also swiftly brought that information to the Vatican’s attention in a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in Washington at the time, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

Yet Mr. McCarrick remained as archbishop of Washington for nearly two more years and suffered no discipline until last year, when the allegations against him were reported. At that point, the Holy See removed him from ministry; his final punishment is now being weighed in Rome.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wuerl, though forced to resign as archbishop last fall following revelations by a Pennsylvania grand jury that he had mishandled numerous clergy sex abuse cases in Pittsburgh, continues to oversee the Washington archdiocese pending appointment of a successor.

Understandably, Mr. Ciolek is outraged that Mr. Wuerl, having known of his allegations for years, denied knowledge of them last year. “It’s as if I don’t exist,” he told The Post’s Michelle Boorstein.

Pope Francis himself has displayed a gaping blind spot on the issue of clergy sex abuse, at times condemning it and taking resolute action, at other times directing contempt and lip service at victims. He has convened a meeting of top bishops in Rome next month. Actions and policies, not ringing declarations, will be the measure of the church’s success in grappling with a scandal that has shamed it.