Archbishop of Washington DC Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigns amid cover-up scandal

Frederick Owens
October 14, 2018

"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", Cardinal Wuerl wrote in a September 11 letter to the priests of his archdiocese.

He also apologised for "past errors in judgment" and asked for "pardon".

In contrast to the accusations made against him in the report from the Pennsylvania grand jury, Wuerl had been applauded in the past for publicly cracking down on members of the clergy who were accused of sexual abuse in the '80s and '90s.

Responding to Viganò's charge that the cover-up was due to a cabal of gay people and gay sympathizers in the Vatican, Ouellet wrote that despite the fact that there are some who engage in behavior "contrary to the values of the gospel", that does not justify declaring a whole group of people, including the current pope, "unworthy and complicit".

Why did Cardinal Wuerl resign?

Wuerl has been an ally of the Pope in the United States Church hierarchy which includes some known to be lukewarm about the pastoral priorities of the Francis pontificate. As is customary for bishops who turn 75, he had submitted a formal resignation three years ago. "Even when sacked for bad behaviour, they should be allowed to depart in a dignified manner".

In an interview, Wuerl said he would continue to live in Washington and that he expected to keep his positions in Vatican offices, including one that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops. He removed some accused priests from ministry, and lobbied for some of the changes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted in 2002. Wuerl presided over his funeral, noting that "a priest is a priest". Wuerl at times acted with authority to deal with abusive priests (more on this below), but in several cases allowed such priests to escape scrutiny and in a few to continue as priests in good standing elsewhere - and to continue abusing others. But the grand jury report also showed he still returned other predator priests to ministry upon the recommendation of psychologists. For those who read the grand jury report, however, it doesn't comport with the facts at hand.

"When you read the almost 200 times Donald Wuerl was mentioned in the report", Shapiro said, "you will see that his conduct was absolutely abhorrent".

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Despite a personal formality that sometimes struck observers as aloofness, McGuire said she found Cardinal Wuerl to be self-effacing, humble, approachable and genuinely interested in people. Nonetheless, many people in the Catholic community lost faith in Wuerl's leadership and soon the cardinal reached the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.

Wuerl's defenders have cited a case that surfaced in 1988, when a 19-year-old former seminarian, Tim Bendig, filed a lawsuit accusing a priest, Anthony Cipolla, of molesting him.

Mr. Wuerl, who has stepped down as Archbishop of Washington, had announced last month that he planned to meet with the Pope to discuss his resignation.

Wuerl insisted he was unaware of McCarrick's settlements, but his detractors questioned whether that was believable. Called "The Wuerl Record", it was removed after criticism. He later clarified that he did view McCarrick's situation as presenting "a very grave moment" for the Catholic Church but that he thought the church could overcome it.

The erosion of Wuerl's standing was compounded by his association with his predecessor as archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. But public backlash over the summer placed the Archdiocese of Washington under intense pressure all the same. McGuire nevertheless called for Wuerl to resign. "We are going to each be asked to speak our mind on what we think needs to be done", he said.

Wuerl, who is 77, may have resigned, but he won't be disappearing from church leadership just yet. In Washington, he succeeded Cardinal McCarrick.

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