Not long ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl was seen as the consummate “insider”. As Archbishop of Washington, he was probably the most politically well-connected clergyman in the United States; he gained particular notoriety for taking a “middle” position on giving Communion to pro-choice politicians, giving him the confidence of liberal Democrats who would otherwise steer clear of Catholic clergymen.
Yet, at the same time, he did not publicly deviate from the Church’s line on other questions: life issues, human sexuality, or any of the hot-button topics in American politics. He was the consummate moderate, deftly navigating the politics of religion, never running afoul with either the Republicans or Democrats.
His centrist credentials could only serve him so far, however. Wuerl has been very near to the centre of the greatest controversy the Church has seen since the Reformation. Yet, while he resigned as Archbishop of Washington, there’s reason to believe that he’ll remain a major power-broker in America and Rome.
Wuerl’s reputation was called into question when his predecessor, the ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was credibly accused of sexually assaulting a minor and engaging in illicit relations with young priests and seminarians throughout his career as a bishop. Just weeks later, a Pennsylvania grand jury accused Wuerl of covering for sexually-abusive priests while serving as Bishop of Pittsburgh. He denied the accusations.
The Archdiocese of Washington struggled to stay ahead of the allegations levelled against Wuerl. Immediately after allegations against his predecessor broke, Wuerl told an interviewer: “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.”
He was roundly condemned on social media as tone deaf, evidently downplaying not only McCarrick’s abuses but also the scandal they caused. When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused him of covering up for his predecessor, calls for Wuerl to resign intensified.
In the middle of the McCarrick scandal and shortly after the grand jury report was published, Wuerl travelled to Rome to consult Pope Francis. The Holy Father advised that he speak to his priests over whether he should step down as archbishop. A source close to Wuerl, who was present at this meeting, told the Herald that the majority wished Wuerl to resign after he “began the healing process”.
Wuerl followed those wishes as the archbishop initiated when he called the “Season of Healing” (also in September) in his archdiocese. Having achieved that, he immediately departed for Rome, asking the Holy Father’s permission to retire from the episcopacy. On October 12, it was granted.
But Wuerl’s detractors weren’t satisfied. For one, Wuerl still belongs to several highly influential Church bodies, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Moreover, he remains a cardinal, which entitles him to vote in the next conclave. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was involved with the Grand Jury that implicated Wuerl, told NBC News: “He is now able to retire seemingly with no consequences for his actions”. It’s hard to call this retirement at all.
Wuerl’s influence – particularly on Pope Francis – is unlikely to weaken, either. In his letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, the Holy Father praised Wuerl effusively. He said that the call to step down “rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: to seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care.” The Pope implied that Wuerl was the victim of “sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than the sheep be dispersed”; Wuerl’s “nobility” compelled him to step down, for which the Pope says “I am proud and thank you.”
This extensive letter obviously conveyed tremendous reluctance on Francis’s part and depicted Wuerl’s retirement from diocesan ministry – which he actually offered three years ago, and the Pope has only now accepted – was an act of Christlike self-sacrifice. The statement was crafted to make one thing very clear: Wuerl might be out of Washington, but he and his allies will still find favour with the Vatican.
What’s more, he said that Wuerl has “sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes… and to commit some mistakes.” This is curious, given that the Holy See has not given a substantial response to claims that Wuerl, Francis and other high-ranking bishops knew about McCarrick’s abuses. Wuerl has denied the charges; Pope Francis has remained silent, while promising an inquiry in some form; but there is still no full account.
Indeed, the letter seems to prioritise political concerns over transparency: rather than addressing the claims head-on, it treats them as evidence of Satanic activity.
This attitude is a very bad omen for the prospects of reform in the American Church. A full recognition of past errors is crucial. Perhaps the archbishop’s successor can begin the process.