News Analysis

The bishops’ credibility is still an issue

Cardinal Donald Wuerl (CNA/Archdiocese of Washington)

Last week we learned that the former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, consistently misrepresented his knowledge of the character and proclivities of his disgraced predecessor in the See of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, who is at present facing canonical proceedings in Rome on charges of criminal sexual misconduct, including the abuse of minors.

Specifically, we learned through separate reports from the Catholic News Agency and the Washington Post that in 2004, when Wuerl was Bishop of Pittsburgh, he received evidence from Robert Ciolek, who is a laicised priest and one of McCarrick’s alleged victims, and that Wuerl reported Ciolek’s complaint to the Apostolic Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

Since the news broke last June that the archdiocesan review board in New York had deemed another accusation against McCarrick credible, Cardinal Wuerl has consistently protested ignorance of his predecessor’s reputation. “I can report that no claim – credible or otherwise – has been made against Cardinal McCarrick during his time here in Washington,” Wuerl wrote in a letter dated June 21 2018.

In an interview with the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, dated July 31 2018, Wuerl said, “In the past month, I have seen some of those new public reports” of long-standing rumours about McCarrick. Wuerl told the paper: “[I]n my years here in Washington and even before that, I had not heard them. With rumours – especially old rumours going back 30, 40, even 50 years – there is not much we can do unless people come forward to share what they know or what they experienced.”

The following month, Wuerl was asked in a CBS News interview: “Were you aware of the rumours McCarrick was having relationships with other priests?” He replied, “No, no.”

The Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement last week, saying: “Cardinal Wuerl has attempted to be accurate in addressing questions about Archbishop McCarrick.”

It continued: “[Cardinal Wuerl’s] statements previously referred to claims of sexual abuse of a minor by Archbishop McCarrick, as well as rumours of such behaviour.” The statement added: “The Cardinal stands by those statements, which were not intended to be imprecise.”

Indeed, Cardinal Wuerl intended to be very precise. He denied hearing those “old rumours” about McCarrick – whatever they were – but did not deny having received a complaint directly from an alleged victim. Wuerl’s statement on June 21 is likewise susceptible of a construction that would exonerate him of the charge of bald lying. Depending on how one takes the qualifier, “during his [ie McCarrick’s] time in Washington”, the statement could be perfectly accurate. It was certainly misleading. Archdiocesan spokesman Ed McFadden told the Catholic News Agency that Robert Ciolek “never claimed direct sexual engagement with McCarrick”, in the complaint Ciolek made to the Pittsburgh review board.

The Washington Post reported that Ciolek told Pittsburgh that McCarrick had pressured him to sleep in a bed with him and to give and receive backrubs. It recorded Ciolek as calling McCarrick’s behaviour “inappropriate” since McCarrick “exercised extraordinary authority” over Ciolek (and the other seminarians alleged to have suffered similar mistreatment).

This does not, of course, amount to felony sexual assault, but it is more than enough to earn any superior in any secular institution a pink slip, at the very least.

In a letter to priests dated January 12 2019, Cardinal Wuerl explained that he had meant to deny he had ever received a complaint about McCarrick involving the sexual abuse of a minor. “When the allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was brought against Archbishop McCarrick,” Wuerl wrote, “I stated publicly that I was never aware of any such allegation or rumours.” He went on to explain, “This assertion was in the context of the charges of sexual abuse of minors, which at the time was the focus of discussion and media attention.”

The long-standing and persistent rumours about McCarrick did not, in fact, regard his abuse of minors, but his predilection for seminarians. Cardinal Wuerl’s protestations in these regards are likely enough to make even a highly qualified defence implausible.

What is on display here is a big part of the real reason for the gaping hole in the bishops’ credibility. They haven’t been giving it to us straight. Worse, they do not seem to notice, or care if they do. McCarrick, meanwhile, is under some sort of judicial proceeding – it seems almost certainly a streamlined “administrative” process – at the Vatican. There has been speculation that the Vatican wants to put a bow on those proceedings and announce a verdict before the highly anticipated February meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences on child protection. The question is: why the rush?

Part of the answer is to be found in the evidently pressing need to plug the burgeoning credibility gap. Coming down hard and swiftly on McCarrick would give the appearance of doing something. It will also guarantee attention will shift away – for a while at least – from the outstanding questions regarding who knew what and when they knew it.

But it is still the case that, amid a crisis of clerical leadership, the only remedy is for bishops to tell the whole truth. Last week’s news suggests that they are still at the start of the learning curve.