That it happened so quickly and so smoothly does not make it any less remarkable.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of Washington, was not the main celebrant at the largest Mass on the calendar of the archdiocese, the “Mass for Life,” held on the morning of the March for Life at an arena where some 20,000 young people gathered. Cardinal Wuerl had been the main celebrant of the Mass for years.
But on the Tuesday before Friday’s Mass, Cardinal Wuerl wrote to the priests of Washington explaining that when he had repeatedly denied that he had even “heard rumors” about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, he had not “intended to be imprecise,” but had simply forgotten that he had reported allegations against the cardinal to the apostolic nunciature in 2004.
On Wednesday, it was announced that, on Friday, Cardinal Wuerl would not be at the Mass. When a Catholic cardinal can’t appear before as friendly a congregation as the Mass for Life, it is astonishing. When some observers charge that nothing has changed in how the Church deals with sexual abuse, consider how quickly and smoothly Cardinal Wuerl disappeared.
Remember how difficult it used to be to make a cardinal cease public duties when it would be awkward to have him present?
Despite public pleas to Cardinal Bernard Law that he should absent himself from celebrating one of the novemdiales Masses for the repose of St. John Paul II after his funeral in 2005, Cardinal Law insisted, and no one could stop him. It generated the unpleasant reaction expected.
In 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States, it would have been customary for those American cardinals resident in Rome to accompany him on the visit. But Cardinal Law, emeritus of Boston and archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, would be in that number, and the Holy Father did not want him to go marching in.
So meetings were held in Rome to discuss the matter.
It was, in 2008, simply thought impossible to tell Cardinal Law that his presence at that moment was toxic and that he should stay away. So a novel measure was announced instead, namely that only those Americans in Rome who were current heads of “dicasteries” would accompany the Holy Father. That rule kept Cardinal Law out. It also kept out Cardinal Edmund Szoka, emeritus governor of the Vatican City State, but the former archbishop of Detroit had to take one for the team. If the rule had applied only to Cardinal Law, it would have looked like what it was, namely an effort to keep him away.
The ad hoc rule also meant that Archbishop James Harvey, then prefect of the papal household, had to go, as he was head of a (small) dicastery. He did not usually accompany the Pope on foreign trips.
Today, no elaborate rule need be thought out. A cardinal in bad odor just knows — or is told — that he should bow out. That is not a happy state of affairs, as part of the purpose of having cardinals is that they lend an air of solemnity to important occasions. But it is the new reality, and Americans are getting quite a bit of practice.
The Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, marked its 150th anniversary last March and petitioned Pope Francis to send a papal legate for the occasion. The Holy See agreed, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, was appointed to represent the Holy Father.
Given his severely compromised history on covering up sexual abuse, there were immediate objections that Cardinal Mahony’s presence would not ennoble the festivities, but, rather, serve as an embarrassment.
The local bishop took note, the apostolic nuncio was consulted, and in short order Cardinal Mahony announced that he had, alas, overlooked a scheduling conflict. The diocesan website was quickly scrubbed of the original announcement, and Cardinal Mahony quickly disappeared.
In the summer of 2018, when the allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were dominating media coverage, it was asked what Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who served as Cardinal McCarrick’s vicar general for six years and lived in the same house with him, might know about such matters.
Cardinal Farrell, now the prefect of the Vatican department for laity and family life, summoned a journalist to say that he was utterly shocked to have heard about such things now and had certainly never even heard a whisper of the same ever before.
That was met with considerable skepticism, and even those who believed Cardinal Farrell to be telling the truth conceded that it demonstrated a rather troubling lack of curiosity on Cardinal Farrell’s part. Cardinal Farrell, like Cardinal Mahony before him, discovered that his calendar was rather full, and so quickly canceled his keynote address to the Knights of Columbus’ annual convention.
The Knights are about the friendliest audience imaginable for a cardinal, but Cardinal Farrell quickly disappeared. He has not been very prominent in the United States since.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley and Cardinal Wuerl both canceled their planned visits to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families last August. In Cardinal O’Malley’s case, he would have still been welcome in Dublin, but he canceled the trip after allegations of misconduct surfaced at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He remained home to coordinate the investigation.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, left office under a cloud in 2011, after a second grand jury report discovered that the archdiocese had not fully dealt with sexual-abuse claims after an initial grand jury report in 2005. It was that failure in Philadelphia that led to a statewide grand jury investigation of the other dioceses in Pennsylvania that reported its findings this past summer.
Cardinal Rigali retired quietly to Knoxville, Tennessee, and is not often seen on prominent occasions. For example, last November he did not attend the U.S. bishops’ plenary in Baltimore, although Cardinal Mahony did.
And, of course, Cardinal — now-Archbishop — McCarrick, accused of sexual abuse himself, has been entirely out of view, never having been seen in public since the allegations against him were announced in June. It is likely that he will never be seen again, not even at his funeral.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.