Exclusive Interview: Cardinal Wuerl on his resignation, Pope Francis’ letter and more

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl during the pontiff's 2015 visit to the United States. The pope has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Wuerl as archbishop of Washington but did not name a successor. (CNS photo/Gary Cameron, Reuters)

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.”

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“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.”

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John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

Plays the victim role oh so well

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

Such a weasel, not big enough to man up to his sinfulness.

J Cosgrove
1 month 1 week ago

It's hard to know who to believe is right about Wuerl. George Neumayr has written some devastating articles about Wuerl. How much is true? If just a little bit, then the Church has a lot of cleansing to do starting at the top. It's the old question, who can spy on the spies or in this case who can police the police or who can oversee the overseers?

Zita Bennett
1 month ago

I've seen some of the smut that George Neumayr has written and I have no problem knowing who to believe.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 month 1 week ago

The first responsibility of a pastor is protecting his sheep. That means identifying the black sheep and even the goats. On that, Wuerl failed. His comments about the corrosive and huge homosexual clergy sex crisis not being a "massive, massive crisis" is as tone deaf as assertions he had justifications for his bureaucratic-protect-the-institution rather than shepherd-protect-the-sheep approach.

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

Take away their robes and religion
and you have one of the biggest criminal enterprises in the world,

We’re talking about sexual abuse of thousands of children
in wholesale fashion
for decades upon decades
while thousands of priests and supervisors covered it up.

They’re criminals.
They belong in jail.

Tina Linetti
1 month ago

Totally agree, my colleagues from assignment writing services agree too. They do belong in jail, and I suppose there are even more people who use church to disguise their criminal deeds to be uncovered and brought to justice

Kenneth Wolfe
1 month 1 week ago

Could these questions have been any more softball-like? Imagine America using this same tone to conduct the exit interview for Bishop Finn or Cardinal Burke!

Christopher Lochner
1 month 1 week ago

Poor baby. How loving and selfless. Wow. Is the Church in trouble!

arthur mccaffrey
1 month 1 week ago

Boy, I would love to have Pope Francis write me a letter of reference next time I am looking for a job! He wouldn't mention my prison record or wife beating or anything--what a swell guy!

Kevin Murphy
1 month 1 week ago

Oh dear. Such pablum. America Mag is so willingly gullible.

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

Sinful that he is not being prosecuted.

Vincent Gaglione
1 month 1 week ago

I expressed my disdain on this site for Cardinal Wuerl the day that I saw the picture of him standing with the nuns at some Rose Garden reception with Trump. I expected more and better of him to even being in a picture with the great prevaricator!

However, in today’s NY Times article about Wuerl, his resignation, and the letter from Pope Francis, I was greatly disturbed by some of those quoted in the article who sounded a whole lot like the comments posted here today. This is what I wrote on the Times website this morning:

While the hurt and suffering of and justice to the abused cannot be ignored nor neglected, some of the recriminatory comments about Wuerl border on revenge. I am reminded that even 20 years ago, in this alleged "open and transparent" USA culture, the sexual and domestic abuses within families were (and still are) often "covered up" by family members to avoid embarrassment and social condemnation. The reliance on psychological supports was unwarranted, as we now well know. The same reactions happened in the Catholic Church and Wuerl was not one of those who deliberately permitted the abuse to continue. In today's mindset, he made egregious errors but I do not believe that they were made maliciously, as some comments in this article would have us believe.

Mike Macrie
1 month 1 week ago

I agree while the comments leaving out the political Viganò attacking the Pope.

john collins
1 month 1 week ago

The Cardinal deserves all the praise and respect—and the ‘apostolic administrator’ position—that Pope Francis accords him. His case is not unlike the case of Bernard Cardinal Law. Each served the Church and its unity remarkably well, even if not infallibly so.

john collins
1 month 1 week ago

The Cardinal deserves all the praise and respect—and the ‘apostolic administrator’ position—that Pope Francis accords him. His case is not unlike the case of Bernard Cardinal Law. Each served the Church and its unity remarkably well, even if not infallibly so.

john collins
1 month 1 week ago

The Cardinal deserves all the praise and respect—and the ‘apostolic administrator’ position—that Pope Francis accords him. His case is not unlike the case of Bernard Cardinal Law. Each served the Church and its unity remarkably well, even if not infallibly so.

Greg Heck
1 month 1 week ago

"[T]he well-being and unity of God’s people" does not appear to be priority of Jorge Bergoglio or Mr. Wuerl. It appears that their first priority is self-preservation, followed by destruction of their church.
These men are of no value.

Crystal Watson
1 month 1 week ago

Wuerl was beyond retirement age anyway, and he still keeps jobs such as selecting new bishops and working for the CDF. All the pope's letter does is raise more questions about his supposed dedication to ending sex abuse in the church.

Danny Collins
1 month ago

Good points.

Zita Bennett
1 month ago

I'm grateful for the time the then Bishop Wuerl was assigned to the Archdiocese of Seattle. He came to visit our parish in a Navy town on at least one occasion while he was here. I believe Cardinal Wuerl is a good, holy, faithful Servant of God.

Danny Collins
1 month ago

Wuerl. The guy who paid off convicted child molester Fr. Zirwas when he threatened to go public with a list of child abusing priests? Diocesan funds were used to fund Zirwas' hedonistic lifetstyle in Cuba where he was eventually murdered by one of his gay prostitutes. Then Wuerl actually went to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in the June 6, 2010 edition and claimed that "canon law" required the payout. That's just not true. Good thing the PA Grand Jury report tells the truth about why the payout happened.

Wuerl cancelled a meeting between McCarrick and seminarians, yet claims that he never heard complaints about the man. Then why did he cancel McCarrick's appearance in that particular setting?

Wuerl claims that he always acted to remove priests, but he refused to share information about transferred abuser Fr. Paone when other dioceses requested information on his fitness to serve as priest. When the insurance company for one diocese got suspicious and asked for a sworn statement about Fr. Paone, Wuerl refused to give one, knowing that he had misled them previously.

Of course, America Magazine would never report these inconvenient facts about Wuerl. He's their man, so the truth must be secondary to the PR stunt.

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