Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has faced increasing calls for his resignation over his handling of sexual abuse cases, wrote on Tuesday that he will soon discuss with Pope Francis the possibility of stepping down as leader of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Wuerl did not say in his letter to priests whether he will ask Francis to accept his resignation, which he submitted three years ago at the customary retirement age of 75. But he acknowledged that many Catholics have questions about their bishop's ability to lead them in the midst of the exploding sexual abuse crisis in the church, and he said he would be discussing his resignation with the pope.
"At issue is how to begin effectively to bring a new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have also been wounded by the shame of these terrible actions and have questions about their bishop's ability to provide the necessary leadership," Wuerl wrote to the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Wuerl has already visited the Vatican since the release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that revealed allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests across the state over seven decades and called into question Wuerl's conduct as a supervisor of priests. Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years before coming to lead Washington’s prominent archdiocese in 2006. When Wuerl spoke with Francis at the end of August, the pope told him to consult his priests about what he should do — and he did so at an annual Labor Day picnic for clergy, which he referred to in his letter Tuesday.
"It was clear that some decision, sooner rather than later, on my part is an essential aspect so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward," he wrote. "As fruit of our discernment I intend, in the very near future, to go to Rome to meet with our Holy Father about the resignation I presented nearly three years ago, November 12, 2015."
Wuerl can ask to step down, but only the pope can accept the resignation of an archbishop. It is entirely up to Francis whether Wuerl continues in his job or retires.
Wuerl's letter, however, seemed to indicate that he considers his retirement to be somewhat likely; he closed by anticipating "a new beginning" for the church he serves.
Many in the archdiocese have asked Wuerl to step down in recent weeks, including more than 40 teachers at Catholic schools who protested outside their back-to-school Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and a highly visible deacon at St. Matthew's Cathedral, who said he would refuse to participate in the Mass with the cardinal.
Ed McFadden, Wuerl’s spokesman, said Tuesday that Wuerl’s letter is not an official resignation, but he noted the letter's call for a “new beginning.” The main point of the letter, he said, was to tell Wuerl’s priests that he had heard their feedback in recent days and was preparing to take the next step. “All he’s saying is the discernment process has ended. And at some point in the future he’ll meet with the Holy Father and discuss the resignation he submitted three years ago,” McFadden said.
Wuerl has had trouble connecting with his flock since the topic of sex abuse emerged this summer. The day of the Pennsylvania grand jury report's release, Wuerl published a website defending himself and praising his record on clergy abuse. His staff and his defenders have repeatedly said he was ahead of his time in working in some cases to remove abusers from churches. But in other cases, he took the advice of mental-health professionals who said priests accused of abuse were safe to return to work, and Wuerl let them remain in ministry.
Last week, Wuerl wrote to his priests to tell them he was organizing a six-week season of prayer and healing in response to the sex abuse crisis. But the initiative apparently landed poorly with some Catholics, who, according to McFadden, told Wuerl they viewed it as a ploy to buy himself more time in the job.
McFadden declined to offer any details about when Wuerl might go to Rome or when a final announcement could be made.
Wuerl is an ally of Francis and had been expected to stay in office for a few more years until his replacement was picked. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain were among the possible replacements raised in public conversation this summer, before the scandals hit. It's unclear who is now on the pope's list of candidates.
McFadden declined to comment on what might have convinced Wuerl that it was time for a change. He also declined to say when Wuerl might speak publicly on the issue.