On January 14, the Catholic News Agency published a puzzling headline: “Wuerl denies prior denials denied knowledge of McCarrick seminarian abuse”. CNA had proof that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned as Archbishop of Washington in October, was told in 2004 (when he was Bishop of Pittsburgh) of sexual misconduct by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Wuerl’s convoluted response was that when he denied last June that he knew about McCarrick, he was referring only to an allegation involving a minor. He had indeed been told that “Uncle Ted” preyed on seminarians, but suffered a “lapse of memory”.
Wuerl’s explanation is being ridiculed and many commentators have concluded that he lied in June. Yet, at the time of writing, he is still apostolic administrator of Washington. Pope Francis was reluctant to accept his resignation and, as a mark of favour, kept him in charge until a successor could be found.
That is now an urgent priority. Just before last week’s March for Life in Washington, Wuerl was forced to withdraw as principal celebrant of its Mass. At the event, senior clergy were speculating that his job as administrator was effectively over, and that an announcement could be expected within weeks.
If so, who will be the new Archbishop of Washington? An early front-runner was Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who is esteemed by the Holy Father. But the gregarious Tobin has admitted that he heard rumours about McCarrick and did not investigate them – which is a black mark against him.
One possibility is Joseph Naumann, Archbishop of Kansas City since 2005. He is best known for two things: denying Communion to former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius because she was pro-abortion, and for defeating Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago in the vote for chairman of the US bishops’ pro-life committee. Naumann was chosen because no bishop is more passionately anti-abortion – and also, perhaps, because Cupich was seen as too ambitious and divisive.
Liberals were humiliated by Cupich’s defeat; if Naumann gets Washington and its red hat they will be unhappy. But that will be nothing compared to the fury of conservative Catholics if Tobin gets the job. The names of half a dozen other potential candidates for the role, meanwhile, can easily be found on the internet.
The Pope has many options. He must be aware, however, that any appointment that appears to have the blessing of Wuerl – who still sits on the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops – will further divide an already demoralised US Church.