For the last six months, Cardinal Donald Wuerl has managed to keep his head above water amid dogged and persistent criticism of his leadership. The cardinal managed to draw praise from the pope even while his priests and parishioners called for his ouster from Washington, DC, and he managed to remain in a leadership position in Washington’s archdiocese even amid a growing body of concern about his ability to lead a diocese at all.
But this week, Wuerl seems to have reached the end of whatever combination of luck and skill has kept him on his feet.
It now looks clear that Wuerl’s mandate to lead, and whatever was left of his legacy as a reformer, are gone. All that is left now is for the pope to announce his successor, and for Wuerl to make his quiet exit from public life.
CNA reported last week that in 2004 Wuerl was made aware of an allegation that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick had engaged in inappropriate behavior with seminarians. This was a surprise to some, since Wuerl has denied for months that he had ever heard even rumors about McCarrick’s alleged sexual behavior.
Set against last week’s revelation, Wuerl’s seven months of denial appear to undercut completely his decades-long career, which until the events of the last year was marked by a reputation for competence and reliability.
After months of repeated and increasingly narrow denials, news that Wuerl forwarded 14 years ago a direct accusation against McCarrick to Rome is seen nearly everywhere as the final blow to the cardinal’s credibility.
Wuerl is the Archdiocese of Washington’s apostolic administrator, essentially a placeholder for his own successor. His resignation as Washington’s archbishop was accepted by Pope Francis in October 2018. At that time, the move was widely understood as a response to the cumulative weight of scandal following the McCarrick revelations and the July release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse, in which he was named more than 200 times.
Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation as archbishop with reluctance, heaping praise on the cardinal as he did so.
“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. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you,” the pope wrote in October.
In the light of last week’s revelations, that praise now looks, to many Catholics, to have been seriously misplaced.
When the first accusation against McCarrick was made public in June last year, involving the abuse of a minor, Wuerl spoke of his “shock and sadness.”
In the following weeks, numerous accusations surfaced about McCarrick’s conduct with seminarians in the now-famous beach house, and even in the cathedral rectory in Newark.
Wuerl was repeatedly asked what he knew about McCarrick’s apparently serial misconduct with minors, priests, and seminarians. The cardinal responded, on camera, that he had never even heard rumors about his predecessor.
In a private address to Washington priests about the subject last summer, Wuerl joked that bishops are “often the last to know” about widespread rumors.
His tone shifted after it was discovered that he had known for more than a decade that McCarrick was accused of sexual improprieties with seminarians.
In a letter to Washington priests sent Saturday, Wuerl said that when he “stated publicly that I was never aware of any such allegation or rumors [about McCarrick],” his denial “was in the context of the charges of sexual abuse of minors, which at the time was the focus of discussion and media attention.”
“While one may interpret my statement in a different context,” he wrote, “the discussion around and adjudication of Archbishop McCarrick’s behavior concern his abuse of minors.”
On several occasions last year, a spokesman for Wuerl told CNA that the cardinal took “no particular interest” in where McCarrick lived or ministered during his retirement – especially as it pertained to his contact with seminarians. CNA was told Wuerl was unaware of any reason he should be concerned about McCarrick’s seminary domicile.
Wuerl told priests this weekend that his words were being placed in a “different context” than one in which he said them. The effect of his denials seems to be that his entire life of ministry is now being evaluated in a “different context” than the one he would have preferred.
In August 2018, former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released his first “testimony,” a letter that alleged, among many other accusations, that McCarrick’s life and ministry had been restricted in his retirement by order of Pope Benedict XVI.
Vigano charged that McCarrick had been ordered out of the seminary where he lived, and that Wuerl was well aware of both his predecessor’s situation and of Rome’s efforts to curtail his ministry. Wuerl denied ever receiving specific “documents or information” about any such restrictions, despite conceding that he had intervened to cancel an event at which McCarrick was due to address aspiring seminarians.
CNA also discovered that, even after Wuerl had first been informed of the New York allegation against McCarrick in 2017, he declined to warn the religious order providing McCarrick with seminarians to serve as his personal staff – much to their frequent discomfort.
Despite that, Wuerl’s supporters have been willing to believe, until now, that his apparent inaction in Washington must be the result of some misunderstanding.
Just a few months ago, Wuerl still enjoyed support from Church watchers who felt he was being unfairly singled out, and his quiet support for a new phase of reforms held weight in Rome.
In the light of last week’s revelation, most now agree that Wuerl’s failure to act on or acknowledge what he now says he learned in 2004 marks the final landslide in the erosion of his reputation as a credible reformer on the issue of sexual abuse.
As the bishops of the United States gathered at Mundelein Seminary for a retreat earlier this month, they received a letter from Pope Francis underscoring the “crisis of credibility” facing the US hierarchy.
During the 2018 U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in Baltimore last November, Wuerl spoke from the floor, recalling that in 2002 St. John Paul II invited the U.S. bishops to begin “a time of profound purification, not just personal but institutional.”
“That frame of reference has to be with us today,” he told the bishops.
“Transparency on the level of a diocese but [also] transparency on the level of all of us working together: I think that is going to be a very significant factor,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way since 2002, but we still have some way to go.”
“Part of purification is [that] sometimes we simply have to take personal responsibility,” Wuerl told the bishops.
The conclusion now being drawn is that, by his own measure, Wuerl cannot now continue even as administrator of the archdiocese he once led.
For decades, Wuerl was known for advancing policies and systems to deal quickly and efficiently with accusations of abuse against priests. But, when asked about McCarrick in June 2018, his first instinct – conscious or otherwise – was to dissemble. In that, it has been observed, he appears now to embody the cause of, not the solution to, the “crisis of credibility” the pope identified.
Wuerl’s eventual departure from Washington is a coming certainty. But the mere appointment of a successor is in itself unlikely to quiet those outraged by last week’s revelation.
Wuerl’s “precision of language” in recent months, many fear, has effectively salted the earth behind him.
A consensus has formed that Wuerl’s response to questions about McCarrick betrays a culture of evasion, even among those bishops with the strongest reforming credentials.
Wuerl’s example, it seems, demonstrates that no bishop armed only with policies can bring systemic change to an episcopal culture which turns inwards in the face of hard truths. Individuals, many are saying, not policies create and sustain that culture, and it is they that need systemic change – beginning with Wuerl. As Pope Francis has argued to the U.S. bishops, integrity must precede policy if policy is to have any effect.
Facing a diocese and a city hardened against him even before he arrives, Wuerl’s eventual successor is likely to need near heroic reserves of sincerity and humility in the face of the Church’s failings.
Washington Catholics are saying they want a bishop with the courage to make decisions rooted in truth and justice, not policy and procedure, and one with the mind and heart to explain those decisions patiently, and without reservation, to a world which may not understand or accept them.
They are praying they receive such a shepherd, and soon.