Cardinal Wuerl's Resignation a Case of Lost Credibility


National Catholic Register, 12 October 2018

His resignation Oct. 12 was due more than anything else to the fact that his priests didn’t believe he was telling the truth about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

In the normal course of events, the resignation of a bishop nearly three years after his 75th birthday would be unremarkable. But these are not normal times, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s fall is most remarkable.

The two low points of the summer of shame for the Church in the United States — the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — both put Cardinal Wuerl on the hot seat. His time as bishop of Pittsburgh was subject to examination in the grand jury report, and what he knew about his predecessor in Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, led to many uncomfortable questions.

But it would have been possible to imagine Cardinal Wuerl surviving either, or both. It was that he lost the confidence of his priests that led to today’s resignation.

When Cardinal Wuerl traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis in August about this future, the Holy Father told him to return home and consult with his priests. The cardinal did so in early September and soon after announced that he would be asking Pope Francis to accept his resignation, which he submitted in accord with canon law on his 75th birthday in 2015. It had been expected that Cardinal Wuerl would continue in office until his 80th birthday in 2020.

And why did his priests lose confidence in him?

It was not his record in Pittsburgh, where he served as bishop from 1988-2006. While the general reaction to the grand jury report was fierce toward Cardinal Wuerl — his name was removed from a school named after him in Pittsburgh — the priests of both Pittsburgh and Washington would have had a more nuanced view.

There were cases, early in his time in Pittsburgh, that were not handled as they would have been after the Dallas Charter of 2002. But as bishop, Cardinal Wuerl was ahead of his time on the sexual abuse issue, and by the early 1990s he already had in place measures that other bishops would take another decade to implement.

Indeed, in his Oct. 12 letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, Pope Francis goes out of his way to praise Cardinal Wuerl’s handling of abuse cases — a brave statement given that it will be poorly received in the aftermath of the grand jury report.

“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,” Pope Francis wrote. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

That is not entirely true. When the grand jury report was released, Cardinal Wuerl launched a special website precisely to defend his record in Pittsburgh. That was so grave a miscalculation of the public mood that Cardinal Wuerl took it down within a day.

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