ROME—After weeks of speculation, the announcement was hardly ceremonious. Just a simple one-sentence declaration in the Vatican’s daily bulletin saying the Holy Father has accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Washington D.C., the eminent Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl.
Wuerl immediately released a statement on his page on the D.C. Diocese website, thanking the pope for what amounts to continuing support. “Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has accepted the resignation first offered on November 12, 2015, when I reached my 75th birthday. I am profoundly grateful for his devoted commitment to the well-being of the Archdiocese of Washington and also deeply touched by his gracious words of understanding,” he wrote. “The Holy Father’s decision to provide new leadership to the Archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future. It permits this local Church to move forward. Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon. My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you the people of the Church of Washington.”
But the implications of this, the latest twist in the sex-abuse crisis gripping the Catholic Church, are massive, and will undoubtedly be felt as much in Rome as in the American church.
Wuerl had tendered his resignation three years ago when he turned 75, as all cardinals who hold important governmental positions in the church do. This is not a resignation from priesthood, or in any way one that prohibits them from celebrating important Masses in important places. Francis accepts them when it’s clear the cardinal wants to lighten his load. He waits on them when it is clear, as in the case of Wuerl, that they don’t.
But Wuerl’s resignation became something of an albatross around the pope’s neck as word of the systematic clerical sex abuse within the American Catholic Church spilled out, almost like festering pus from an infected wound. Keeping Wuerl around was almost as problematic as orchestrating the perfect moment to let him go. A source close to the Vatican inner workings told The Daily Beast that the timing is not accidental: It comes midway through an important synod of bishops celebrating the youth in the church and on a Friday heading into a weekend in which half a dozen venerated figures, including the beloved Salvadoran priest Oscar Romero and the late Pope Paul VI, will be elevated to sainthood.
No matter what, news of Wuerl’s resignation will soon be eclipsed by celebrations and photo ops. On Friday, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the panel of bishops talking about the synod would not take questions about Wuerl’s resignation, and when journalists dared to ask, they were immediately rebuffed and told to stick to the synod.
Still, Wuerl’s involvement in what is now the biggest reason not to celebrate the church is hugely important. His name was on two of the most prominent open cases: the Pennsylvania grand jury report that exposed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests over seven decades. Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh, was named more than 200 times in the report. Since summer, his name has been stripped from schools and even basketball courts, and protesters interrupted his Masses with screams of injustice.
But Francis let him stay in charge of the D.C. diocese despite Wuerl’s own assurances to his perplexed parishioners that he would ask the pope once again to accept his resignation. Wuerl then spent more than a week in Rome late last month, where he was photographed at lavish ceremonies the pope attended, and then returned to D.C. with his job somehow still intact.
Then came revelations that Wuerl’s name was on the documentation that approved the transfer of the erstwhile Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was sent to a life of prayer after years of whispers that he had a penchant for young seminarians and abused at least one minor. The Vatican stayed silent on those accusations until last week, when Francis authorized a “study” into the Vatican’s handling of the allegations, which almost certainly included Wuerl’s name. McCarrick, who is now in a friary in Kansas, has not been defrocked or stripped of his clerical collar. He can still celebrate Mass.
What now for Wuerl? The cardinal could easily find himself following the same dubious path as Boston’s Bernard Law, who resigned from his post after the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigations showed his indisputable complicity. The cardinal came to Rome to while away his years celebrating Mass in a beautiful basilica. Law, who died last year, was given a Vatican state funeral inside St. Peter’s—the closure to a life that was hardly in exile.
If a letter from Francis to Wuerl published on the Vatican’s news service website is any indication, Wuerl’s won’t be either. The pope does seem to acknowledge that the cardinal had no choice but to be let go, but seems to assure him that he has no reason to be ashamed about it. “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,” the pope wrote. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you. In this way, you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the church. Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his church.”
Before Francis accepted his resignation, Wuerl said that when he was eventually free from his duties in D.C., he would like to dedicate his life to listening to the victims of clerical sex abuse around the world. Such a plan is obviously noble. But many are wondering why he didn’t listen to those people while he still had the power to do something about it?