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Pope Francis accepts resignation of D.C. archbishop Wuerl, amid criticism of the cardinal’s handling of abuse claims

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, on Oct. 12, amid scandals over how Wuerl handled sexual abuse claims. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a trusted papal ally who became a symbol among many Catholics for what they regard as the church’s defensive and weak response to clerical sex abuse.

But even as Wuerl becomes one of the highest-profile prelates to step down in a year of prominent abuse scandals, Pope Francis offered the cardinal a gentle landing, praising him in a letter and allowing him to stay on as the day-to-day administrator of the Washington archdiocese until a successor is found.

In his letter, Francis said that Wuerl’s “nobility” had prompted him to step down, even though he had “sufficient elements” to justify his actions.

“Of this, I am proud and thank you,” Francis wrote.

The Vatican’s announcement ended Wuerl’s 12-year tenure as archbishop of Washington, and marked the most direct consequence to date from a scalding August Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted decades of systemic sexual abuse within the church — some of it occurring in Pittsburgh, where Wuerl served as bishop. The 900-page report portrays Wuerl as being inconsistent in his handling of sexual abuse, and in the aftermath of the report’s release, the meticulous cleric — who once had a reputation as a controversy-free reformer — faced mounting anger and calls for his resignation.

Wuerl's handling of sexual abuse now imperils his legacy as a reformer

Friday, some Catholics said that Francis — with his unusual decision to keep Wuerl in place on an interim basis — was being overly protective of an ally, overlooking the seriousness of the cardinal’s case and undermining his own attempts to deal forcefully with the consequences of abuse. More than five years after becoming pope, Francis is confronting a wave of abuse-related scandals that amount to the greatest crisis of his papacy.

A Washington diocese spokesperson said that the 77-year-old Wuerl will retain his place in the powerful Congregation of Bishops, the section of the Roman Curia that helps to pick bishops.

“It’s very disappointing,” said David Clohessy, the former national director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “This continues a long, long pattern in the church hierarchy — a refusal to admit what is so clear to the rest of us. Wuerl is guilty of serious wrongdoing. You can claim other bishops are even worse, and there is some truth to that. But the simple fact is that he endangered children.”

On Friday, the Archdiocese of Washington’s chancellor and general counsel, Kim Viti Fiorentino, described Wuerl’s “courageous and sacrificial commitment” to the church in Washington and pushed back at the Pennsylvania grand jury report’s findings.

Abuse settlement with Wuerl's name on it raised more questions

“Unfortunately, the Cardinal’s pioneering leadership in the enhancement, implementation and enforcement of historically innovative and rigorous child protection policies was overshadowed by the report’s flaws and its interpretation by media,” said Fiorentino, who did not elaborate on those criticisms.

In a letter released Friday addressed to the “brothers and sisters” of the Washington archdiocese, Wuerl wrote that new leadership was needed so the church could “begin to focus on healing and the future.”

“I am sorry and ask for healing for all of those who were so deeply wounded at the hands of the Church’s ministers,” Wuerl wrote. “I also beg forgiveness on behalf of Church leadership from the victims who were again wounded when they saw these priests and bishops both moved and promoted.”

Washington-area Catholics who had been protesting and calling for Wuerl’s ouster said the church must do more.

Jack Devlin helped organize one of the more dramatic displays that Wuerl had lost support, when more than 40 schoolteachers stood outside the annual back-to-school mass at the Basilica, demanding the archbishop’s resignation instead of entering the ceremony. He was relieved on Friday, but also said church leaders have a long way to go before regaining his trust.

“When it comes to child abuse, this isn’t like, ‘Oops, I messed up.’ These are kids we’re talking about,” the Catholic teacher said. “The way Pope Francis worded it, it was how you’d word somebody making a little mistake. This is not a little mistake.”

The cardinal’s exit follows a trio of blows this summer that left Wuerl, known for his ability to tightly control matters within his realm, confronting critics at nearly every turn.

First came the June suspension for child sex abuse of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s D.C. predecessor, which quickly led Catholics to wonder what Wuerl knew. Then came the public release of the grand jury report detailing clergy sexual abuse in six dioceses, which painted Wuerl as sometimes stopping abusive priests and sometimes guiding them right back into parishes during his 18 years as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Lastly, on Aug. 25, a former Vatican ambassador published a largely unverified letter on conservative Catholic sites accusing Wuerl — along with popes Benedict and Francis — of knowing McCarrick was dangerous but still allowing him to function as one of the church’s highest clerics.

Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, whose office in August released the grand jury investigation, said that his office’s report made clear that Wuerl “actively engaged in the cover-up.”

While Wuerl sometimes handled cases well, Shapiro said during a meeting with members of The Washington Post editorial board, “this isn’t a balancing act. … You don’t get a mulligan when it comes to passing predator priests around.”

Wuerl pushed back on the grand jury report, saying he did everything he could under the laws and norms of times past. He has asked parishioners in a public talk to forgive his “errors in judgment” while he was a bishop in Pittsburgh. He has also denied knowing of any allegations against McCarrick before June, when McCarrick was suspended after church officials in New York found credible an allegation he groped an altar boy decades ago.

Nicholas Cafardi, an original member and the former chair of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, said on Friday that Wuerl had been given a justifiably “gentle letdown.”

“I think part of the unfairness is that he is being judged by the standards of 2018 for things he did 20 and 30 years ago,” Cafardi said. “He is not the bad actor some may think he is, and losing his see is more than enough of a public humiliation.”

But others said that the Vatican’s handling of Wuerl’s resignation didn’t sit well.

Sandra Yocum, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college, posited that Francis came of age in a time when sexual abuse was not taken as seriously.

“We have come a long way in understanding its impact and its prevalence,” she said. “Think about someone who’s in their 80s. I know he’s pope and I know he’s a sophisticated thinker,” but he's still struggling to handle the topic appropriately.

“I don't know how they're going to regain credibility," she said about the American bishops, “because it really requires a kind of reform that I'm not sure they're willing to embrace.”

Francis has been under fire this year, particularly since the letter released by former ambassador Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who said he had told the pope about McCarrick’s misconduct with young men five years ago.

While hundreds of priest-abusers have been removed in recent decades, the bishops and cardinals responsible for overseeing them almost never are, and Catholics in 2018 have been showing signs of being fed up with the status quo. They've been openly outraged, organizing protests, demanding resignations and threatening to withhold their money from the church.

Even so, it was a surprising ending for Wuerl, who largely avoided controversy and politics and rose to become a confidant of Pope Francis. To his defenders and even to some government prosecutors who worked in the arena of sex abuse, Wuerl had been seen as a pioneer in the church on this topic — advocating in the 1980s for victims' rights and for transparency and concluding that pedophilia was not curable.

“It is ironic that one of the bishops who was better than most became the symbol of the failures,” said John Carr, a former U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops employee who now leads a center at Georgetown University.

Catholic clergyman said he would refuse to participate in Mass with Wuerl

Wuerl was 26 when he became a priest in 1966 in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He rose quickly in the church, becoming assistant to then-Bishop John Wright, who became a cardinal in Rome, giving Wuerl entree to the Vatican at a young age.

In the late 1980s, he was plunged into church culture wars — and earned a name as a company man — when the Vatican sent him to Seattle to counter a liberal bishop named Raymond Hunthausen. The Vatican charged Hunthausen, a peace activist, with being lax with enforcing church doctrine in everything from marriage annulments and ministry to LGBT Catholics to priest discipline.

After an investigation, the Vatican appointed Wuerl in 1985 to be auxiliary bishop and had him take over many administrative functions from Hunthausen. It was a very controversial move, that led to Wuerl’s association with the more conservative wing of the church. But experts on Wuerl and the U.S. church say he was more committed to rules and bureaucratic structures than he was driven by a conservative ideology.

Hunthausen’s authority was restored in the late 1980s, and Wuerl was sent to back to Pittsburgh as bishop, where he maintained his reputation as a skilled administrator and a behind-the-scenes bridge-builder.

While Wuerl was in Pittsburgh a priest named Anthony Cipolla was removed from the ministry amid allegations that he had abused several boys. Cipolla appealed, and in 1993 the Vatican demanded that Wuerl reinstate him. Wuerl refused, taking the fight to the Vatican Supreme Court. He later won.

The Cipolla case set the parameters for Wuerl’s early reputation on the topic of abuse. Victims praised him, and some feel that the church delayed making Wuerl a cardinal as a punishment for his willingness to challenge the Vatican.

In 2006, he was installed as archbishop of Washington, where he has been praised as a successful if emotionally distant leader, pulling the archdiocese’s finances into better order, working well with the city to shift some closing Catholic schools into charter schools and hosting the visits of two popes — Benedict in 2008 and Francis in 2015.

Wuerl became known in Washington for holding the middle ground in a culture bolting to the extremes. He agreed with the practice of allowing politicians who support the right to abortion to receive Holy Communion. He has also increasingly adopted Francis’s welcoming tone on gay issues, something of a public shift on the issue after he severed benefits for unmarried couples who worked for the archdiocese’s Catholic aid group in 2009 rather than offer coverage to same-sex couples newly allowed to marry in the District of Columbia.

As a close adviser to Francis, Wuerl has often been painted by conservative Catholics as too liberal — someone making excuses for Francis’s emphasis on acceptance and welcome rather than clarifying doctrinal boundaries.

In an interview with The Post in March, Wuerl said his most recent communication from the Vatican said he was reappointed until he turned 80. He will be 78 on Nov. 12.

Asked what defines the Washington period of his career, Wuerl said then that it was partly staying out of politics. "I see myself as a spiritual leader, not someone who is engaged in the political life,” he said.

Wuerl was also asked about critics who say Francis isn’t doing as much he could on the topic of clerical sex abuse.

“I don’t see that. He’s been very clear, consistent. He’s put a committee together,” Wuerl said. “. . it seems to me any time there is a glitch — for example when he says: ‘You know you need to have proof,’ it gets exaggerated. It gets inserted into some story line that he’s not as committed as he should be. I don’t see that story line as valid.”