Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Last week, U.S. Catholics learned that Cardinal Wuerl knew that his disgraced predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, had faced allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians back in 2004.
And when Cardinal Wuerl was accused of lying about his knowledge of McCarrick’s misbehavior, his spokesman argued last week that his public comments had been misunderstood: He had only denied prior knowledge of the allegations against McCarrick that involved minors.
Here’s what Cardinal Wuerl told the National Catholic Reporter back in Aug. 6, in an “exclusive” interview:
Although Wuerl said he had not personally been aware of rumors about McCarrick's alleged abuse of young men during the former cardinal's time as a priest and bishop, he acknowledged that others have now brought forward earlier existence of such rumors.
‘If there were [rumors], and if people heard them, there needs to be some mechanism by which there can be at least an evaluation and review of them,’ said Wuerl, speaking in a phone conversation.
So let’s state the obvious: Based on the evidence at hand, Cardinal Wuerl knew about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with adults at least 14 years ago, and lied about it.
That said, Wuerl’s refusal to acknowledge the truth is even more puzzling, given his past effort to flag McCarrick’s misbehavior. Back in 2004, when Wuerl served as Bishop of Pittsburgh, he informed the papal nuncio about a claim against McCarrick filed by a former New Jersey seminarian.
Wuerl’s actual motives may come to light in the coming months, after the U.S.-based investigation into the McCarrick cover-up is completed. For now, here are some possible explanations for Cardinal Wuerl’s puzzling and very shocking behavior.
1. He gambled that the evidence would not come to light.
Cardinal Wuerl’s lie might not have been exposed if Robert Ciolek — a former seminarian who alleged that he had been sexually abused by McCarrick and by a Pittsburgh priest — had not asked to see documents in the personnel file of that Pittsburgh priest.
As The Washington Post reported last week, Ciolek was not allowed to copy the documents, but he still offered a clear recollection of a damning memorandum signed by Wuerl, when he was bishop of Pittsburgh:
It memorialized Wuerl’s meeting with the papal nuncio earlier that week [when Ciolek provided his testimony against the priest], and indicated he had shared with the papal nuncio, Archbishop Montalvo, the details involving allegations I had made about McCarrick.
The memo was in the first person, Ciolek said, and included Wuerl’s handwritten initials after his printed name.
Wuerl may have had other reasons to expect that the facts would not surface. The U.S. bishops have approved an investigation of the four dioceses where McCarrick previously served, but McCarrick never led the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Of course, Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh is free to conduct a forensic review of diocesan files and then forward the relevant documents to the proper authorities. Did Bishop Zubik take such action? If not, his hand has been forced by last week’s headlines.
Perhaps the investigators appointed by Church authorities would have connected the dots and conducted a review of Pittsburgh personnel files. But when the shocking allegations against McCarrick were first confirmed, Wuerl did not know whether they would spark a comprehensive investigation.
As late as August, he floated his own plan to establish a panel of bishops to investigate fellow bishops. He was also an active participant in the U.S. bishops’ debate on proposals to improve bishop accountability at their November meeting in Baltimore. In hindsight, it’s clear that his efforts to shape the outcome of such discussions were surely influenced by his own failure to remove McCarrick, but also possibly by self-protective instincts.
2. It was too late to set the record straight.
“Wuerl well understood the rage he would meet if he were to have admitted he knew but didn’t do everything everyone would expect in retrospect to get McCarrick out,” a well-placed source told me. “I think he was trying to save the work he thought he could continue to do.”
Another way of thinking about the problem is this: Wuerl couldn’t acknowledge the truth because it would be an admission of personal corruption. If he really cared about the victims, why had he allowed a powerful clerical predator to remain in a position of trust?
3. Wuerl believed his record was credible.
In a Jan. 12 letter to his priests, Wuerl emphasized that he had “acted responsibly” when he first learned of McCarrick’s “inappropriate conduct.”
“The entire report was also immediately turned over to the apostolic nuncio — the papal representative in the U.S. Having acted responsibly with the allegation involving Bishop McCarrick’s behavior with an adult and hearing nothing more on the matter, I did not avert to this again,” he said in his letter.
“The man asked for confidentiality to protect his own name.”
An archdiocesan spokesman also noted that Ciolek “never claimed direct sexual engagement with McCarrick” in his complaint to then-Bishop Wuerl.
Meanwhile, Ciolek has since argued that his claim against McCarrick could have been made public without identifying the victim.
In any case, experts have questioned whether Wuerl did, in fact, do everything he could to remove McCarrick.
“If Wuerl was able to get the Sacred Signatura, the Church’s highest court, to overturn its decision on a case, he is a man who would know how to make his concerns known to the right people,” observed Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who referenced Wuerl’s lengthy and ultimately successful campaign to laicize an abusive Pittsburgh priest.
“The Signatura had issued a decision he could not live with and he fought it,” said Father Fox.
“So if his letter to the nuncio didn’t get an answer, he could have brought the issue to the Congregation for Bishops, the Secretary of State, and to the pope.”
Father Gerald Murray, a New York priest and canon lawyer, echoed this point.
“Given the magnitude of the claim” against McCarrick, said Father Murray, “Wuerl could have gone back to the nuncio, to find out what had happened. He could have confronted McCarrick directly.”
Father Murray raised an additional concerns that required further investigation.
“We have to find out: Did McCarrick propose Wuerl as his replacement?” he asked. “Was Wuerl aware of that, and then decided to keep quiet about it? You just don’t know.”
4. Wuerl Had More to Hide
“I do not rule out the possibility that there is something even more devastating to Wuerl’s reputation still to be revealed,” Gerard Bradley, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame told the Register, as he speculated about the Washington archbishop’s perplexing actions. “He might have judged that circling the wagons might be the better way to protect his own secrets.”
Experts and commentators have singled out Wuerl’s past record as the secretary of then-Bishop John Wright, who would later be appointed cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Clergy and was alleged to be actively homosexual.
In a recent article for Commonweal, former Newsweek religion reporter Kenneth Woodward recalled the widely circulated rumors of Cardinal Wright’s “double life” in Rome, while shaping Vatican guidelines for seminary formation.
Wuerl “would surely know the truth about Wright,” said Woodward. “Wuerl’s first assignment after ordination at the age of thirty-one was as secretary to then Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh in 1966.”
Later, Wuerl “became Wright’s omnipresent full-time personal assistant when the latter moved to Rome, even sitting in for him during the papal conclave that elected John Paul II.”
The Vatican is expected to appoint Cardinal Wuerl’s successor shortly. For now, Catholics across the United States are waiting to see whether Rome and the U.S. bishops are able to open a new chapter of accountability for high-ranking prelates like McCarrick and Wuerl.
“After this latest disclosure, the best thing Cardinal Wuerl can could do is admit he had not told the truth back in June,” and then step down, said Father Murray.
But, for now he concluded, “the message is that a Catholic cardinal is widely considered to be a liar. He was accused of being a liar by Archbishop Viganò. Then documentary proof is offered to prove he is lying.”