Comment Opinion & Features

We used to believe bishops told the truth. What happened?

Cardinal Wuerl (Archdiocese of Boston/Flickr)

One of the biggest stories of 2019 took place exactly a year ago. The Diocese of Pittsburgh confirmed that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington had, in fact, known about Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, despite his claims to the contrary.

The revelations on January 10, 2019 were a mortal blow to the credibility of prelates, precisely because of Cardinal Wuerl’s prestige and well-earned reputation for being careful and exact. That loss of credibility has poisoned the relationship between bishops and priests. It began long before Cardinal Wuerl, but that he would offer misleading statements so brazenly on such a high-profile case had far-ranging consequences.

Indeed, the Cardinal Wuerl affair was part of a larger story. It was one of the most important of 2019, namely that even the Vatican no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. To the contrary, media outlets are now quite serene about stating flatly that Church officials are not telling the truth.

Recall the facts. In the summer of 2018, after the first allegations against Theodore McCarrick were made public, Cardinal Wuerl was asked what he knew. He insisted that he had no knowledge of any accusations of sexual abuse of minors by McCarrick. But he went further, insisting that he had never even heard “rumours” about McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians. He compounded his statements to the media by gathering his priests to tell them the same thing.

Yet in 2004, when still Bishop of Pittsburgh, he had heard complaints against McCarrick from a former priest, who alleged abuse by McCarrick when he was a seminarian. Wuerl, nothing if not punctilious about protocols, reported the matter to the apostolic nuncio, the Diocese of Pittsburgh confirmed. In 2006, he was appointed McCarrick’s successor in Washington.

In 2018 Cardinal Wuerl repeatedly denied that he had ever heard any such things about McCarrick. That 2004 report he made about a cardinal to the apostolic nuncio? A “lapse in memory”, he wrote to his priests last January. No one believed that Cardinal Wuerl, fastidious to a fault, had forgotten that he had conveyed allegations about his predecessor to the apostolic nuncio. No one believed that any bishop would forget reporting allegations about a cardinal to the nuncio. In Cardinal Wuerl’s case, his explanation lacked all credibility given his reputation as a diligent and exacting administrator.

(At the time, the Archdiocese of Washington insisted that “Cardinal Wuerl has attempted to be accurate in addressing questions about Archbishop McCarrick” and stood by his statements, “which were not intended to be imprecise”.)

The impact on the credibility of bishops has been significant. Cardinal Wuerl’s successor in Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, felt constrained to begin his ministry with a promise to tell the truth, previously assumed to the case for a bishop. It is not assumed any longer.

It is not hard to find priests – to say nothing of journalists – who are inclined not to believe anything their bishops say without corroboration. And bishops know it, which is why reviews of diocesan files are entrusted to law firms, or retired judges, or former law enforcement personnel.

Any data provided by a bishop is suspect without independent verification.

We saw the consequences of this culture of mendacity in 2019 at the Vatican, where journalists across the spectrum no longer give Church officials the presumption of truth-telling.

In October, journalist Sandro Magister asked at a Vatican press conference about prostrations in regard to the “Pachamama” in the Vatican Gardens. Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, insisted that there were no “prostrations”, despite his own department providing video footage of same. His deputy at the press conference applauded his denial, giving the whole affair a rather Soviet feel. Magister promptly pointed out that Ruffini had “inexplicably denied” the direct evidence contained in the footage.

Perhaps Magister is too quick to criticise? How about the respected John Allen, who often bends over backwards to extend the benefit of the doubt? He wrote a blistering column in November, calling the Vatican’s official explanation of the departure of René Brülhart, president of the board of directors of the Financial Information Authority, “hogwash”. “Don’t try to tell us there’s nothing to see here, when the eye test reveals something else indeed,” Allen wrote.

What about the secular press? In 2019, the Associated Press adopted a remarkable style in stories about Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, removed from his diocese in 2017, only to have Pope Francis create a special sinecure for him in Rome as a high-ranking curial official.

In all stories about Zanchetta, the AP includes these lines, or something similar, stating baldly that the Vatican is not telling the truth: “The Vatican has insisted that Zanchetta was only facing ‘governance’ problems at the time of his 2017 resignation and appointment at the Vatican, and that the first sexual abuse allegation was made in late 2018. The documents, however, make clear that the Vatican was aware of inappropriate sexual behavior by Zanchetta two years before he resigned.”

That’s not a columnist opining. That is wire service straight-up hard news.

The Zanchetta case may be resolved in 2020. The report on McCarrick will be released. But who will believe what is being told?