VATICAN CITY — Oct 12, 2018, 12:01 PM ET

Pope accepts Washington cardinal's resignation amid scandal

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Pope Francis accepted the resignation Friday of the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, after he became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals and lost the support of many in his flock.

But in a letter released by Wuerl's office, Francis asked Wuerl to stay on temporarily until a replacement is found and suggested he had unfairly become a scapegoat and victim of the mounting outrage among rank-and-file Catholics over the abuse scandal.

The pope's apparent reluctance to remove Wuerl was evidence of the fraught personnel decisions he has been forced to make as he grapples with the burgeoning global scandal that has implicated some of his closest advisers and allies, including top churchmen in the U.S., Belgium, Honduras, Chile and Australia.

With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.

A grand jury report issued in August on rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by McCarrick.

A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl's resignation as Washington archbishop, but named no replacement; in his letter, the pope asked him to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.

Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially played down the scandal and insisted on his own good record, but then progressively came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.

"The Holy Father's decision to provide new leadership to the archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future," Wuerl said in a statement Friday. "Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon."

In a letter to the Washington faithful, which Wuerl asked to be read aloud at Mass this weekend, Wuerl directed himself in particular at survivors of abuse.

"I am sorry and ask for healing for all those who were so deeply wounded at the hands of the church's ministers," he wrote. "I also beg forgiveness on behalf of church leadership from the victims who were again wounded when they saw these priests and bishops both moved and promoted."

In his letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he recognized that, in asking to retire, Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions. He once again referred obliquely to the devil being at work in accusing bishops of wrongdoing, saying the "father of lies" was trying to hurt shepherds and divide their flock.

"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," Francis wrote. "However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this I am proud and thank you."

Francis' praise for Wuerl alarmed survivors' advocates, who said it was evidence of the clerical culture Francis himself denounces in which the church hierarchy consistently protects its own.

Terrence McKiernan, president of the online abuse database BishopAccountability, said it showed that for Francis, "Cardinal Wuerl is more important than the children he put in harm's way. Until Pope Francis reverses this emphasis on coddling the hierarchy at the expense of children, the Catholic Church will never emerge from this crisis."

Wuerl had submitted his resignation to Francis nearly three years ago, when he turned 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. But Francis kept him on, as popes tend to do with able-bodied bishops who share their pastoral priorities.

But Wuerl made a personal appeal to Francis last month to accept the resignation, following the fallout of the McCarrick scandal and outrage over the Pennsylvania grand jury report that has led to a crisis in confidence in the church hierarchy.

Wuerl was also named prominently in the 11-page denunciation of the McCarrick cover-up that was penned by the Vatican's former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who accused a long line of U.S. and Vatican churchmen of turning a blind eye to McCarrick's penchant for sleeping with seminarians.

Wuerl has not been charged with any wrongdoing but was named numerous times in the Pennsylvania report, which details instances in which he allowed priests accused of misconduct to be reassigned or reinstated.

In one case cited in the report, Wuerl — acting on a doctor's recommendation — enabled the Rev. William O'Malley to return to active ministry in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents. Years later, according to the report, six more people alleged that they were sexually assaulted by O'Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.

In another case, Wuerl returned a priest to active ministry in 1995 despite having received multiple complaints that the priest, the Rev. George Zirwas, had molested boys in the late 1980s.

Wuerl apologized for the damage inflicted on the victims but also defended his efforts to combat clergy sex abuse.

His defenders have cited a case that surfaced in 1988, when a 19-year-old former seminarian, Tim Bendig, filed a lawsuit accusing a priest, Anthony Cipolla, of molesting him. Wuerl initially questioned Bendig's account but later accepted it and moved to oust Cipolla from the priesthood. The Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to restore Cipolla to priestly ministry, but Wuerl resisted and, after two years of legal procedures, prevailed in preventing Cipolla's return.

"No bishop or cardinal in the nation has had a more consistent and courageous record than Donald Wuerl in addressing priestly sexual abuse," contended Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

Wuerl's archdiocese issued a series of similar plaudits Friday, coinciding with the Vatican announcement. They included a letter from the archdiocesan chancellor, Kim Vitti Fiorentino, who lamented that Wuerl's "pioneering leadership in the enhancement, implementation and enforcement of historically innovative child protection policies was overshadowed by the (Pennsylvania grand jury) report's flaws and its interpretation by the media."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes for Religion News Service, described Wuerl as an ideological moderate.

"He was totally enthusiastic about John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict, and now he's totally enthusiastic about Pope Francis," Reese said. "There are not many people in the church who are totally enthusiastic about all three of them."

Numerous conservative Catholic activists and commentators, though, considered him too tolerant of the LGBT community and too liberal on some other issues. They resented his pivotal role a decade ago in resisting a push by some of his fellow bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support the right to abortion.

Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, attended Catholic University in Washington and received a doctorate in theology from the University of Saint Thomas in Rome. He joined the priesthood in 1966, was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1986, and served briefly as auxiliary bishop in Seattle before going to Pittsburgh.

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Crary reported from New York.

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This version corrects the spelling of Bill Donohue.

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CComments

  • Forward forward

    The tiny baby steps the Catholic Church has taken regarding pedophile priests have strictly been for show. They are still more intent on covering it up than on fixing the problem.

  • Forward forward

    Until the Catholic Church makes it a policy to remove every pedophile priest and report him to the police, the Church will continue to lose credibility and membership. This has been in the public eye for thirty years, and has been going on for decades, probably centuries before that. The Church still keeps allowing children to be raped, and sends the rapists off to a new parish when they get caught, and they start it all over again. What kind of 'religion' invoking the name of Christ allows that??

  • TexWho

    Pedophiles are going to have to start creating their own religions ...
    oops they have already done that.

  • Rob

    This is a remarkable article. The cardinal resigned because of "the mounting outrage among rank-and-file Catholics over the abuse scandal"? The scandal is at least three decades old. I guess better late than never. The scandal has implicated "top churchmen in the U.S., Belgium, Honduras, Chile and Australia". Interesting that four of these five countries have strong rule of law. What's been going on in countries that don't? Pope Francis says that "Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions." What ambitions does this 78-year-old man have? The '"father of lies" was trying to hurt shepherds and divide their flock'. Does the Pope know that a lot of his "flock" voted for the "father of lies"? The cardinal prevented a single child-abusing priest from returning to the priesthood and '"No bishop or cardinal in the nation has had a more consistent and courageous record than Donald Wuerl in addressing priestly sexual abuse," contended Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.' No bishop or cardinal has a better record than stopping a single child-abusing priest? That's not too reassuring.

  • OliverWendellSr

    Knowing personally some of the abuse targets, I am thankful that THEY weren't required to
    have proof and evidence to be believed.
    Go AG Shapiro: he is asking senators in Pennsylvania to pass a law that does away with the current statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse within the church.

  • Smedley D Butler

    I'm glad to see the Pope moving on this. I'm not Catholic myself, but I hate to see an organization with so many good works to it's credit have it's reputation drug through the sewer by the actions and inactions of Priests and other ecclesiastical authorities in the organization. Past time for the Church to throw the offenders out and refuse to cover up for or extend aid to them, if it wants to maintain any semblance of having any moral authority.

  • logical

    too much forgiveness, not enough punishment

  • Richard Nast

    1000's more should resign if they had and decency but they don't

  • UniqueCD

    ACCEPTED???????????Why wasn't he defrocked, fired, sent away, gonzooo??????
    Why was he allowed to resign?? hilarious!

  • Chuck

    It's not enough. He needs to be in Jail just like Kubik in Pittsburgh. They both knew of the molestations, hid them, and reassigned priests who were predators to other churches. They were in a position where they are to be advocates and mandated to report child abuse and they did nothing. Those coming to his defense are just ridiculous. That he did so much for the church, and to prevent this is all negated by the fact that he allowed this to continue. He did nothing but cover up the systematic raping of children in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is now spending millions in lobbying Pennsylvania politician to not allow a statute of limitations law to be overturned. This alone is sickening and shows that the Catholic Church is all talk. The need to be disbanded and their billions given to their victims. This was just in Pennsylvania, over 1000 children. Worldwide it is hundreds of thousands if not millions. Those still supporting and giving to this rape organization need to rethink their moral compasses as to what they are really contributing too. PATHETIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • spacerome

    “… Donald Wuerl … having made some "mistakes" in handling sex abuse cases, but not having covered them up. … " Francis wrote. "However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this I am proud and thank you."

    --

    Francis,

    You think that nobility can be defined as “not to choose this way of defense”?

    Where is your nobility, then? Show your nobility to the congregation by resigning like Donald Wuerl.

    Or have you not made any "mistakes" in handling sex abuse cases?

  • Mick

    Religion is the biggest scam ever perpertratred by men since the beginning of time, literally! It's all designed to enrich men, so they can to lord over children and women. Children have been victimized for centuries by this disgusting group of pedofiles. The Catholic chruch has done more harm than good. Their entire empire needs to be dismantled and the money given to people in need. If there was a God, it is worst serial killing property manager in the universe.

  • Turned around

    Flock? That's funny