Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., the Vatican announced at noon (Rome time), Oct. 12. At the same time, the Archdiocese of Washington released a letter from the pope to the cardinal in which he asked him to remain as “apostolic administrator” of the archdiocese until his successor is appointed. It also made public a statement from the cardinal as he stepped down.
In a two page-letter, Pope Francis made clear not only his personal esteem for the cardinal but also that he stands by him, and the reasons for this.
He recalled that on Sept. 21 the cardinal requested that the pope accept his resignation, a request which Pope Francis said “rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: to seek in all things the glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care.”
He told him, “the shepherd knows that the well-being and unity of the People of God are precious gifts that the Lord implored and for which he gave his life. He paid a heavy price for this unity and our mission is to take care that the people not only remain united, but become witnesses of the Gospel.”
Pope Francis said he recognized in the cardinal’s request “the heart of the shepherd who, by widening his vision to recognize a greater good that can benefit the whole body, prioritizes actions that support, stimulate and make the unity and the mission of the church grow above every kind of sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than the sheep to be dispersed (cf. Matt. 26-31).”
Then in what appears to be a reference to the Pennsylvania grand jury report that faulted Wuerl’s handling of some abuse cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh (1988-2006), Pope Francis told the cardinal “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.”
In other words, Pope Francis made clear that he considers the cardinal’s actions then as “mistakes,” not a cover-up or neglecting to deal with problems of abuse, and acknowledged that the cardinal could have defended himself in this field.
He warmly commended the cardinal for not engaging in self-defense and said, “Your nobility has led you not to choose the way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
He told the cardinal, “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 for the good of the church” and added, “Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in the church.”
Pope Francis concluded his letter by entrusting the cardinal to the care of the Virgin Mary and prayed that the Holy Spirit “may give you the grace to know how to continue to serve him in this new time that the Lord gives you.”
Cardinal Wuerl issued a brief statement in response to the letter from the pope, which said:
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 wellbeing of the Archdiocese of Washington and also deeply touched by his gracious words of understanding.
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.
The pope has asked Cardinal Wuerl to serve as administrator, that is caretaker of the diocese until the appointment of a new archbishop, which sources say should not take too long.
“The Holy Father’s decision...can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future.”
For many years now, Cardinal Wuerl has exercised great influence in the U.S. bishops’ conference and the church in the United States, as well as in the Vatican, where he was considered a moderate and not a cultural warrior. Born in Pittsburg on Nov. 12, 1940, he studied at The Catholic University of America and at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained as a priest in 1966 and served as the secretary to the bishop of Pittsburgh, John Wright, who was later called to work in the Vatican and made a cardinal in 1969. Cardinal Wuerl worked with him in Rome until his death in 1979, and as a young priest, Cardinal Wuerl participated in the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul II, where he was assistant to Cardinal Wright, who had just come through surgery.
St. John Paul II ordained Cardinal Wuerl a bishop in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1985 and sent him first as auxiliary to the Seattle Archdiocese and in 1988 appointed him bishop of Pittsburgh. He fought with the Vatican to remove a priest from the ministry while in Pittsburg. Bishop Wuerl played an important role in the drafting of the U.S. bishops’ "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," known as the Dallas Charter, and in those years was among the leaders in the U.S. hierarchy in the fight against sexual abuse of minors by priests.
In May 2006, Benedict XVI named him the archbishop of Washington, D.C., in succession to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and in 2010 made him a cardinal. Pope Benedict appointed him to various Vatican congregations and gave him the important role of relator general (chief rapporteur) at the 2012 synod on the new evangelization. He voted in the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. Since then, he has made significant contributions to the universal church as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops, and much else. He welcomed Benedict XVI in 2008 and Francis in 2015 to Washington and accompanied them to the White House to meet the then president, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Cardinal Wuerl has exercised great influence in the U.S. church as well as in the Vatican.
Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation comes in the wake of three events that raised questions regarding how he dealt with cases of abuse: the case of his predecessor Archbishop McCarrick that first came to light in June and his subsequent removal from the College of Cardinals in July; the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Aug. 14; and the first letter from the former nuncio to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, on Aug. 25.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report faulted the cardinal for his handling of some abuse cases in the Pittsburgh diocese where he was bishop from 1988 to 2006 but at the same time recognized that he had done much to combat sex abuse. At first, Cardinal Wuerl sought to defend his own record in Pittsburgh, pointing to the fact that there he confronted allegations of child abuse against 32 priests, 13 of whom were either dead or removed from the ministry before he arrived. He subsequently removed 18 priests from the ministry and allowed one back to the ministry because the accusation against him was deemed not credible. Indeed, in 1988 he was one of the first bishops in the United States to meet victims and was ahead of most of his brother bishops in fighting against abuse. He established a child protection review board in 1988 to review all cases of child abuse, created a survivor advocate position in 1993 to assist survivors and cooperated with law enforcement agencies and other professionals in this field. But he also acknowledged that he had not handled some causes well—made what he called “errors of judgment,” when viewed by the standards of today. He has asked forgiveness for these shortcomings in today’s statement.
The McCarrick case, the grand jury report and the Viganò letter created “a perfect storm,” and Cardinal Wuerl was caught in its midst.
Eleven days after the Pennsylvania report, Archbishop Viganò, the former nuncio to the United States, published a long written testimony accusing senior Vatican officials as well as Pope Francis of covering up the abuse of seminarians by Archbishop McCarrick, Cardinal Wuerl’s predecessor in Washington. Viganò also alleged that he had informed Wuerl about it but the cardinal took no action. Wuerl had flatly denied Viganò’s allegation and affirmed that he never knew of McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians before the case became public earlier in the summer, but not everyone believed him.
These three events—the McCarrick case, the grand jury report and the Viganò letter—created what one U.S. prelate described to me as “a perfect storm,” and Cardinal Wuerl was caught in its midst. Survivors of abuse and their advocates called for his resignation, accusing him of cover-up. His adversaries on the political, economic and theological front, who were already heavily critical of his total support for Pope Francis’ teaching on the family in “Amoris Laetitia” and on the environment in the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” also saw their opportunity and joined the fray, seeking his resignation, too.
Cardinal Wuerl, who will be 78 on Nov. 12, first handed in his letter of resignation, as all bishops are required to do, on reaching the age of 75. As the storm increased in force and calls for his resignation multiplied, he traveled to Rome at the end of August to ask the pope to accept his resignation, but Francis advised him to first consult with his clergy and discern with them the best path ahead. He did so on Sept. 3, when many supported him, but others felt it would be in the best interests of the archdiocese for him to resign. The cardinal concluded that his position as archbishop was untenable, so he returned to Rome in late September to report back to the pope and to press him to accept his resignation. Francis did so; hence today’s announcement.