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Pope Francis greets Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl during a Mass in 2015 outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. CNS photo/Matthew Barrick

Editorial: A confusing message

  • October 18, 2018

Clearly, Cardinal Donald Wuerl was right to resign as Washington archbishop, but his fall has sent mixed signals about the Vatican’s resolve to get tough on clerical sex abuse.

At least, that seemed to be the message after Pope Francis, with apparent reluctance, accepted the resignation of one of America’s most prominent churchmen. Rather than cold-shoulder Wuerl to the door for poor handling of sex-abuse cases, the Pope walked him gently towards retirement with fatherly words that suggested  Wuerl had become a scapegoat.

“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,” the Pope wrote. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

Wuerl turns 78 next month. As required, he tendered his resignation at age 75 and, as often happens, the letter sat in a Vatican drawer because the cardinal remained a capable leader of his archdiocese and a trusted papal advisor. But his position unravelled quickly after he became entangled this summer in the scandals that rocked the American Church. 

First, in a Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, Wuerl, the former bishop of Pittsburgh who would become a crusader on behalf of abuse victims, was implicated in coverups more than two decades ago involving abuser priests who were re-assigned. Amid demands for his resignation, Wuerl issued an apology for what he called errors in judgment.

Any hope that he’d survive that scandal ended a month later. In a denunciation of Pope Francis penned by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Wuerl was accused of ignoring, along with the Pope, the alleged sexual improprieties of former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor as Washington archbishop. Wuerl denied ever being told about McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians but, even among his own priests, skepticism remained.

So his exit as archbishop was no surprise. Unexpected, however, was the Pope’s sympathetic public reaction. Rather than accept the resignation without comment, he conceded Wuerl may have made mistakes but, as far as any coverups, the cardinal had “sufficient elements to justify” his actions, wrote the Pope.  He also suggested Wuerl was a victim of the “father of lies” who seeks to sow division in the Church.

Wuerl is no longer an archbishop but remains a cardinal and eligible to vote in a papal conclave. There is no indication he will lose his positions on Vatican councils and committees, or be removed as a trusted advisor to Francis. He even remains in charge of the Washington archdiocese, albeit as a temporary administrator.

So despite all the headlines about abuse, coverups and the downfall of an archbishop, this episode seems but a modest improvement on business as usual. 

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