In an exclusive conversation with America, conducted Oct. 11, Cardinal Donald Wuerl spoke about the reasons he asked the pope to accept his resignation, stating that “what is important now is to be able to move beyond the questions of doubt, fallibility and not concentrating on myself but helping this church to get to a new place.” He also discussed the personal letter Pope Francis sent him upon accepting his resignation Oct. 12, as well as his 18 years as a bishop in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, his 12 years as archbishop of Washington D.C., the McCarrick case, the accusations leveled against him and the pope by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s response.
“I was very moved that [the pope’s letter] highlights what is so important to me, namely that the shepherd’s first responsibility is to his flock, is to the people entrusted to his pastoral care and that the unity of the flock is so important,” Cardinal Wuerl told America when asked for his reaction to the letter from Pope Francis. “I felt that my ability to be able to serve that unity would have required concentrating on a defense of myself and of my actions and that would, I believe, have taken us in the wrong direction rather than trying to do the healing and unity as quickly as possible. That’s why I asked the Holy Father to accept my resignation so that a new and fresh leadership did not have to deal with these other issues.”
“What is important now is...not concentrating on myself but helping this church to get to a new place.”
In his letter, Pope Francis appeared to believe that while the cardinal committed “some mistakes,” he did not engage in “cover up” or fail “to deal with problems.” When asked if that was how he saw it, too, the cardinal responded: “Yes, and I said that. I made errors of judgment when we were dealing with all those cases before the Dallas Charter. Some of those errors in judgment were based on professional psychological evaluations, some of the errors were based on moving too slowly as we tried to find some verification of the allegations. Those were all judgmental errors, and I certainly regret them.” And, he added, “I think it is also worth noting that all those priests who were faced with allegations in my time there, if there was any substantiation for them they were removed from any ministry that would put them in contact with young people.” He said, “I think what we can say is that a careful reading of the [Pennsylvania grand jury] report and the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s response, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed to be attached to the grand jury report, shows that I acted in a very responsible way to remove predator priests.”
When asked if he wished he had done anything differently during his 18 years as a bishop in Pittsburgh, the cardinal said: “It’s a hard question to answer because in those early years of my ministry, that was before the change in canon law, before the Essential Norms, there were a lot of things that I did that went in the direction of trying to get some proof of allegations. I think where we are today is a different place. When an allegation is made today without any corroborating testimony or proof, the person is still put on leave. I think had that practice and that approach to canon law been operative when I began ministry in Pittsburgh, things would have been very different. Then we were required to have some modicum of proof before moving out the person.”
Pope Francis appeared to believe that while the cardinal committed “some mistakes,” he did not engage in “cover up.”
In his letter of August 25, Archbishop Viganò attacked Pope Francis for allegedly covering up Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse and accused him of lifting the sanctions that Benedict XVI had imposed on McCarrick. He also accused Cardinal Wuerl of not enforcing the secret sanctions. Last Sunday, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, of which Cardinal Wuerl is also a member, responded in an open letter to Archbishop Viganò’s attack against the pope, addressed the question of sanctions and stated, “I conclude that the accusation is a political plot devoid of real foundation that could incriminate the pope and has profoundly wounded the communion of the church.”
Asked if he agrees with the Canadian cardinal when he calls Archbishop Viganò’s attack “a political plot [set up],” Cardinal Wuerl responded: “In my read of that testimony, particularly the part that touches me, it is not faithful to the facts. There can be reasons for that, and I think Cardinal Ouellet is touching on what may be the primary one. In his testimony, Archbishop Viganò clearly says that there were secret sanctions in some form. But he also says himself that he never communicated them to me. Yet this should have been his duty. I find it difficult to accept his version that he holds me responsible for implementing something he never passed on or his gratuitous insult that I must be a liar when I say that I never received these secret sanctions. Certainly I would never have guessed that there were sanctions against Cardinal McCarrick from all the times I encountered him at receptions and events hosted by Archbishop Viganò at the Apostolic Nunciature. The gap between what he says and what he did and his easy calumny call into question for me the real intent and purpose of his letter.”
Then, in an overall comment on Viganò’s letter, he added, “I think there’s something radically wrong with any document that doesn’t provide proof for accusations of that gravity.”
The cardinal confirmed yet again that he never received a complaint about Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse.
In the interview, the cardinal confirmed yet again that he never received a complaint about Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse: “I have clarified over and over again that during the 12 years that I served as archbishop of Washington no one ever brought me any allegation of misconduct, sexual misconduct by Cardinal McCarrick.”
In the letter to Cardinal Wuerl, the pope states that “the division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.”
Commenting on this, Cardinal Wuerl told America, “I think what he is reminding all of us is that while there can be disagreements over policies and practices, once one descends to the level of simply denouncing other people because they disagree with you, then you do harm to the unity of the church. I think that’s what the pope is talking about.”
Asked what his feelings are today as he resigns in this very particular situation, Cardinal Wuerl replied, “Well, first of all I’m very grateful to God for these almost 33 years in episcopal ministry that have allowed me, to the best of my ability, to serve Christ in his people, in his church; to serve the body of Christ in the church. And I am trying to do that to the best of my ability. I’m always going to be grateful for that. I think we’re seeing a new moment in the life of the church today. We’re seeing that within our own conference of bishops. For over 30 years I’ve watched as we have divisions on policy, on practice and we always were able to work through those out of a sense of affective collegiality. Today what we’re hearing and seeing is a level of diversity around the appreciation of the magisterial teaching and that’s a whole new level of diversity within our conference.”
“The first and highest responsibility of a pastor is the well-being of unity.”
When asked what he thinks is necessary to bring about unity in the U.S. church, the cardinal said, “I think one of the things that is of great help is that our Holy Father has called us to take some time among ourselves to pray, to reflect on our primary responsibility as a shepherd. A primary responsibility is to maintain that unity with Peter. The bishops must always function with and never without Peter. I think that is part of what we need to highlight today, and I think we also need to highlight the affective collegiality, that spiritual bond that is diffused among ourselves and transcends political or practical diversity.”
Cardinal Wuerl said he still sees signs of hope in the church in the United States. “What I am seeing is the awakening of the commitment of everybody to look at this, to do what is necessary to heal it, and to root it out, and remember we have made big progress. But also now take a look at how we, as a hierarchy, are ensuring accountability for our actions.”
When asked where he felt he had made a contribution during his 33 years as bishop, Cardinal Wuerl told America, “I always saw my ministry as pastoral and as teaching. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity over these years to have had 18 years in Pittsburgh and 12 in Washington where I was able, I hope, to strengthen the pastoral ministry, focus on the spiritual life of the church. We had our synods in both dioceses, we had the indicators of vitality that we used in parishes, where we could strengthen our ministry. And I focused as much as I could on the life of the parishes and the teaching ministry in our schools, our catechetical programs, writing pastoral letters and books, to provide some continuous renewal of the proclamation of the faith.”
“The disappointment that I may feel would, I hope, be outweighed by what can be accomplished through my resignation.”
The cardinal has worked under three popes. Many people noted how he had worked closely and in great harmony with Benedict, but today they say he seems to have “come out of his shell” with Pope Francis. “The thing that I find so beautiful about Pope Francis’ ministry is that he moves directly into bearing witness to Jesus,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “We have an obligation to proclaim the faith, we also have an obligation to bear witness to it and I find he highlights that so beautifully, that it is something is revitalizing the church. So many young professionals, young people, young families are looking to him and seeing in him a reflection of not just of the words of Jesus but of the actions, the witness.”
Pope Francis, in his letter, said he accepted the cardinal’s resignation but asked him to stay on as “apostolic administrator.” The cardinal did not comment on whether he was surprised by this decision, but said, “I certainly appreciate the vote of confidence that it represents.” He clarified that “the job of administrator is to be a caretaker until the new person is appointed.”
Asked if he felt a little disappointed at the way his 12 years as archbishop ended, Cardinal Wuerl said, “The reason why I asked the Holy Father to accept my resignation was precisely to take the focus off me and to get the focus on to healing and the future. The disappointment that I may feel would, I hope, be outweighed by what can be accomplished through my resignation.”
The Holy Father’s letter “captures so beautifully what I was trying to say, that the first and highest responsibility of a pastor is the well-being of unity; the shepherd has to do that in word and in deed, and in seeking to do that it is well worth my resignation,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
He concluded, “That was the heart of my request and it is the heart of the pope’s response. Unity, the well-being and unity of God’s people has to be the first and most important duty and responsibility of a bishop. My resignation was one way to try to achieve this.”