In the normal course of events, the resignation of a bishop nearly three years after his 75th birthday would be unremarkable. But these are not normal times, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s fall is most remarkable.
The two low points of the summer of shame for the Church in the United States — the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — both put Cardinal Wuerl on the hot seat. His time as bishop of Pittsburgh was subject to examination in the grand jury report, and what he knew about his predecessor in Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, led to many uncomfortable questions.
But it would have been possible to imagine Cardinal Wuerl surviving either, or both. It was that he lost the confidence of his priests that led to today’s resignation.
When Cardinal Wuerl traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis in August about this future, the Holy Father told him to return home and consult with his priests. The cardinal did so in early September and soon after announced that he would be asking Pope Francis to accept his resignation, which he submitted in accord with canon law on his 75th birthday in 2015. It had been expected that Cardinal Wuerl would continue in office until his 80th birthday in 2020.
And why did his priests lose confidence in him?
It was not his record in Pittsburgh, where he served as bishop from 1988-2006. While the general reaction to the grand jury report was fierce toward Cardinal Wuerl — his name was removed from a school named after him in Pittsburgh — the priests of both Pittsburgh and Washington would have had a more nuanced view.
There were cases, early in his time in Pittsburgh, that were not handled as they would have been after the Dallas Charter of 2002. But as bishop, Cardinal Wuerl was ahead of his time on the sexual abuse issue, and by the early 1990s he already had in place measures that other bishops would take another decade to implement.
Indeed, in his Oct. 12 letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, Pope Francis goes out of his way to praise Cardinal Wuerl’s handling of abuse cases — a brave statement given that it will be poorly received in the aftermath of the grand jury report.
“You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes,” Pope Francis wrote. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
That is not entirely true. When the grand jury report was released, Cardinal Wuerl launched a special website precisely to defend his record in Pittsburgh. That was so grave a miscalculation of the public mood that Cardinal Wuerl took it down within a day.
On many other matters — catechesis, Catholic education, priestly formation — Cardinal Wuerl was exemplary and more than earned the praise Pope Francis showered upon him.
It was the McCarrick matter that brought him down. Precisely, his repeated insistence that he did not know about Cardinal McCarrick until the Archdiocese of New York announced in June that an allegation of sexual abuse of minor had been “substantiated.”
His priests did not believe him. They thought that he was lying in public and lying to them. When Archbishop Carlo Viganò wrote that Cardinal Wuerl “lies shamelessly” in his “testimony” published in late August, it confirmed conclusions that many Washington priests had already arrived at.
Further details from Archbishop Viganò’s testimony have subsequently been confirmed by the Vatican, most recently by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who acknowledged that the nuncios in Washington were informed about Archbishop McCarrick and the restrictions placed upon him.
It is simply not possible that the nuncio in Washington, communicating restrictions from the Holy See upon Archbishop McCarrick for sexual misconduct, would not have told Cardinal Wuerl about what was being done to his predecessor, still resident in the archdiocese.
But it is not necessary to conclude that Cardinal Wuerl was lying about his ignorance regarding his predecessor; the important factor in his resignation now is that he could not convince his priests that he was telling the truth.
And therein, possibly, lies a significant milestone in the ongoing reform of the clergy.
Priests, in fact, have much experience of their bishops not telling the whole truth. Or speaking in a manner, while technically truthful, that is aimed more at obscuring rather than revealing. Or, on occasion, telling lies, plain and simple.
A culture of clerical mendacity can take hold in which violations of the Eighth Commandment no longer have the power to shock and are treated as routine. And when clerical culture accommodates itself to routine violations of the Eighth Commandment, matters violating the Seventh Commandment — embezzlement, fraud, theft — and the Sixth Commandment — failing in chastity of all kinds, including sexual abuse — are not far behind.
It may be that the priests of Washington, after Pennsylvania, after McCarrick, were just tired of a culture that was less than forthright.
Cardinal Wuerl was not helped by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, now in Rome but previously the vicar general for Cardinal McCarrick in Washington for six years. Cardinal Farrell, despite insisting in October 2017 that he “knew everything” that happened in Washington, pronounced himself shocked that there was anything untoward about Archbishop McCarrick. That denial was widely met with disbelief.
How deep can the culture of clerical mendacity go?
Consider last March, when Msgr. Dario Viganò, the prefect of the Vatican secretariat for communications — the chief communications officer of the Holy See — manipulated a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to make it seem that he was endorsing a series of booklets on the theology of Pope Francis. Benedict had refused to do so, and given explicit reasons why he would not endorse the project. When caught in his manipulation, Msgr. Viganò blatantly lied about what he had done.
The consequence? He resigned as prefect, but was immediately installed in a new senior position created for him in the same communications department, that of “assessor” — a sort of deputy to the prefect. That the Vatican communications chief was not fired absolutely for deliberate falsifications and lies about the pope emeritus is an indication of how entrenched a culture of clerical mendacity can be.
The resignation of Cardinal Wuerl brings to an end decades of service that will be tarnished, at least for time, until a fuller appreciation becomes possible. Yet the resignation might serve another purpose too, that of cleansing the culture of the clergy of one of its most serious vices, the failure to tell the truth.