Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as Archbishop of Washington DC, one of the United States’ most prominent churchmen who has come under pressure in recent months for his handling of historic sexual abuse.
The cardinal, who will turn 78 on the 2 November, had submitted his resignation to the Pope almost three years ago in accordance with the Church law which requires bishops to offer their retirement at age 75.
But Cardinal Wuerl’s continued leadership of the local Church in his nation’s capital has been called into question following the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation which reported that 300 Catholic priests across six dioceses sexually abused children over seven decades and were protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up.
While the Holy See Press Office announced the cardinal’s resignation in a one-line statement, a letter from Pope Francis to Wuerl was released separately by the Archdiocese of Washington.
The letter implies that Francis sees the cardinal as having committed mistakes in his handling of abuse, rather than engaging in a cover-up. And the cardinal will stay on as the "Apostolic Administrator" of Washington in the short term until a new archbishop is chosen.
“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 writes.
“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
In the Grand Jury report, state investigators focussed on Cardinal Wuerl’s record as Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 depicting his actions as a mix between taking bold action and being obfuscatory.
On the one hand, the cardinal battled the highest Church courts in Rome to ensure that one abusive priest did not return to ministry, but in other cases, questions were raised about his handling of priests who he was informed had been subject to allegations of inappropriate conduct.
Following the report’s release, Cardinal Wuerl said while the Grand Jury "may be critical of some of my actions” he stressed it “confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.” In the immediate aftermath, he also set up a website “The Wuerl Record” which sought to document and defend his conduct over abuse. This was later taken down.
Following the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation, and after the abuse allegations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick emerged, the cardinal has twice been to Rome to meet with the Pope. In September he told priests he would be discussing the question of his resignation with Francis.
The cardinal, who was appointed to Washington by Benedict XVI, is a widely respected Church leader known as a consummate Churchman marked by his loyalty to all the popes he has served. Wuerl has been an ally of the Pope in the United States Church hierarchy which includes some known to be lukewarm about the pastoral priorities of the Francis pontificate.
In his letter, Francis writes that the cardinal’s request to resign “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.”
The Pope adds: “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.”
“You make clear the intent to put God’s project first, before any kind of personal project,” the Pope adds. “Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit which continues to act in his Church.”