WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl, his angular face gaunt with fatigue and strain, returned to the pulpit at the close of a Sunday Mass in early September and offered a plea for forgiveness, and a call to spiritual renewal.
“Any successful purification of our Church is going to require an engagement of the bishops working with our lay people,” Cardinal Wuerl told parishioners at the Church of the Annunciation in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 2.
But his remarks were cut short, as a man stood up and called out sharply, “Shame on you!”
The painful scene was a reminder that Cardinal Wuerl’s moral credibility may be irreparably damaged in the wake of the removal of his disgraced predecessor, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, after allegations surfaced June 20 that he had abused a minor in the 1970s, with subsequent revelations that at least three other allegations involving adult seminarians and a priest had been brought forward in the early 2000s. Cardinal Wuerl said he had no previous knowledge of the accusations which didn’t involve the Washington archdiocese, but media commentators dismissed his explanation, citing long-standing rumors as well as online documents from a psychologist who heard from seminarians about McCarrick’s misbehavior.
Skepticism has steadily spread, as a tumultuous summer brought more scandalous accusations, and a chorus of calls for the Washington archbishop’s resignation even from his priests. Now, Cardinal Wuerl, 77, is expected to meet Pope Francis soon where he will raise the subject of his resignation for the second time this summer. As all bishops are required to do, he submitted his resignation upon turning 75.
Further Damaging Accusations
In August, the cardinal was pummeled by a damning Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which acknowledged he had removed clerical predators during his tenure as archbishop of Pittsburgh, but also accused him of allowing some to remain in ministry. The archdiocese established a website to defend his efforts in Pittsburgh, but it was quickly shut down after critics said the cardinal appeared to care more about his reputation than listening to victims.
He was forced to cancel his trip to Dublin, where he was to deliver a keynote address at the World Meeting of Families, and instead he organized meetings with his priests to hear their concerns and gage their support.
The archdiocese was “looking for us to pull together behind Cardinal Wuerl, but that didn’t happen,” Msgr. Edward Filardi, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, in Bethesda, Maryland, told the Register.
The final, and possibly decisive, blow to his credibility was delivered by the bombshell “testimony” issued by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the U.S. Archbishop Viganò accused Cardinal Wuerl of failing to enforce a directive from Pope Benedict XVI that the nuncio said barred McCarrick from public ministry.
Cardinal Wuerl has contended that he never received formal confirmation of restrictions imposed on his predecessor. The truth of this and other assertions could be established with an apostolic investigation, however Pope Francis has yet to approve one. On Sept. 19, the U.S. bishops’ administrative committee confirmed its call for “a full investigation, supported by lay experts in law enforcement and social services, into the charges lodged against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the responses to those charges.”
When and if a comprehensive investigation is approved, it will not be restricted to the Archdiocese of Washington. For now, however, a harsh spotlight is trained on Cardinal Wuerl, McCarrick’s embattled successor.
“Who Knew What When”
“The laity and a lot of priests don’t believe him,” Father William Foley, pastor of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, told the Register.
Father Foley made clear that he did believe Cardinal Wuerl. However, a retired priest who also resides at Blessed Sacrament’s rectory, Father Percy D’Silva, is among a growing number of Washington-area priests to publicly call for the cardinal’s resignation.
Cardinal Wuerl has sought to rebuild trust, and days after Archbishop Viganò’s letter was released, he issued a letter that reflected a striking change in tone, an implicit admission that the crisis of leadership had humbled him.
He asked his priests to accept his “contrition for any suffering I have caused, as well as the grace to find, with you, ways of healing, ways of offering fruitful guidance in this darkness.”
But many Catholics are impatient for answers, and Father Foley said his parishioners want to know “the truth about who knew what when.”
Father Foley has not been able to provide those answers to his parishioners, but he did organize a Sept. 16 town hall meeting at Blessed Sacrament to give his flock a chance to air their concerns, and hear from specialists with expertise on clergy sexual abuse.
The gathering also offered a window into a passionate national debate on the causes and solutions to the clergy abuse crisis. Some parishioners raised concerns about a subculture of priests engaging in sexual relationships and weak accountability for bishops, while others contended that the crisis underscored the need for married clergy and the ordination of women.
“There are many good, holy and brave bishops,” said Scott Faley, 35, who was married at Blessed Sacrament this summer, and spoke with the Register after the meeting.
“But there is now a perception among my peers that the extent of the corruption involving sexually active clergy and those somewhat sympathetic to them is much wider and deeper than was previously thought.”
Faley applauded some of the cardinal’s initiatives, like his pastoral letters and steady effort to bolster faith formation.
Still, he suggested that active young Catholics like him view the cardinal as a “politician, someone who wanted to climb the ladder of the hierarchy, adapting to the goals of different popes.”
Critics have also raised concerns about Cardinal Wuerl’s decision to reside in an exclusive Washington, D.C., neighborhood, and some revived questions about his refusal to sanction Catholic politicians who promote abortion rights.
But other local Catholics see things very differently. They may be angry about the failure of Church authorities to promptly address Archbishop McCarrick’s behavior, and are horrified by the grand jury report, but they are wary of making their archbishop a “scapegoat” for a global crisis.
“McCarrick was one of the guys, and Wuerl came off as standoffish,” John Morrissey, a physician and the father of five children who attended local Catholic schools, told the Register, as he recalled that some Catholics had trouble warming up to the new arrival’s buttoned-up style.
“But for me, the clarity, consistency, and precision of Cardinal Wuerl’s thinking brought strength to the Church in Washington.”
Morrissey also noted that some “parishes were unhappy that the cardinal centralized decision making and standards for parish finances, and then made sure they were followed.”
But at this present moment, at least within his own parish, Morrissey has heard “no public outcry for his resignation.” The people he knows see Cardinal Wuerl “as a good man who did his best to address horrible problems, and now he is being brought down.”
Reaction from the Washington Presbyterate
The mood among the local clergy is equally nuanced, as evidenced by reports of a Labor Day gathering that brought the cardinal and about 175 priests together.
By then, the cardinal had already traveled to Rome to discuss his possible resignation. Pope Francis advised him to consult his priests about what he should do. The annual Labor Day get-together would provide such an opportunity.
Sources close to the cardinal said he feared the discussion might escalate into a painful confrontation, and a sizable number of priests did register their belief that he must step down. At one point, he was asked again to confirm whether he had prior knowledge of the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick, and again Cardinal Wuerl insisted that he was unaware of the misconduct.
But he also pushed back, with a rhetorical question: If rumors about Archbishop McCarrick’s misbehavior with seminarians were widespread, why didn’t any priest at the cookout bring the stories to his attention?
“Not one of you came forward,” he said, adding that he had never received a report from a priest about a disturbing experience with Archbishop McCarrick, such as being “touched” inappropriately.
Yet despite the palpable tension, the meeting was also punctuated by two standing ovations for the cardinal that left him overwhelmed with emotion, and suggested his efforts at rebuilding bridges had borne some fruit.
A week later, Cardinal Wuerl signaled his next steps in a Sept.11 letter to his priests. Referencing the Labor Day discussion, he said he had concluded that he should discuss his resignation with Francis again, and to use the time that he remained at the helm of the archdiocese to promote the healing abuse survivors.
“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,” he wrote.
Assessing his legacy in Washington
It is not yet clear whether Pope Francis will accept Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation immediately, or ask him to remain in his post.
Meanwhile, supporters and critics alike have begun to weigh the legacy he will leave behind.
Msgr. Filardi, who had previously served as McCarrick’s secretary and was a member of the priests’ council when his successor moved into the chancery, spoke with respect of Cardinal Wuerl’s meticulous approach to his duties.
“He went through all the archdiocesan policies and revamped and rethought them, from sacramental practices to catechetical standards,” said Msgr. Filardi.
Data provided by the Archdiocese of Washington showed that during Cardinal Wuerl's tenure, the number of Catholic schools fell from 112 to 93, reflecting a trend seen across the Eastern seaboard. Only one church closed during this period, and the number of Catholics surged from 560,000 to 655,000.
The accomplishment that is most likely to stand the test of time, the pastor added, is the John Paul II Seminary, founded by Cardinal Wuerl in 2011.
It is too soon to predict whether seminary enrollment, which is at full capacity could be hit by the scandal, but Father Carter Griffin, the vice rector, said the faculty has sought to maintain “an open, frank conversation” as the crisis unfolded.
The world may question why young men still seek to enter the priesthood, but “we recognize that it is Our Lord who calls us to follow him. We stay with him and we stay with his Church,” said Father Griffin.
He emphasized that the seminary’s culture and practices, from its “openness and transparency,” to daily Eucharistic adoration, and an emphasis on “chaste celibacy,” provide an antidote to the “secrecy and the stifling of the truth” that allowed Archbishop McCarrick’s misconduct to go unchallenged.
Likewise, the Church scandals underscore the need for forming future shepherds who are holy and vigilant.
“We see in this crisis the great struggle of good and evil that will be part of our lives until the end,” said Father Griffin.
Lessons for his Successor and Fellow Bishops
There are surely other lessons to be learned, as Cardinal Wuerl grapples with the tragedy of leadership, and some have called for a reassessment of the Church’s approach to the appointment and responsibilities of 21st century bishops.
“Up until this moment, most people would have viewed Cardinal Wuerl’s tenure as pretty successful,” Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.
“He has raised a lot of money for Catholic schools, opened a new seminary, encouraged vocations, and is viewed as a talented administrator who works hard.”
And then, “when there is a scandal like this,” critics say a Church leader like the cardinal is “behaving like a CEO.”
He suggested it was time to remember that the Bible gives Catholic bishops a unique and vital mission: “preaching the Gospel. Our civilization needs the bishop to focus on the basic Gospel message.”
Today, as an explosion of anger fuels an unprecedented crisis that has forced the local Church into “uncharted territory,” Lewis believes the cardinal’s successor should devote much more of his time to a bishop’s primary mission, and set aside the trappings and distractions of power that can sow corruption and create a dangerous barrier between a shepherd and his flock.
“I hope the next archbishop of Washington doesn’t think about his relationship with Capitol Hill and the White House,” said Lewis. “He needs to spend time in parishes talking with priests and his people.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.