After months of speculation, Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl amid the Archdiocese of Washington’s “Season of Healing,” called by the archbishop in response to the “confusion, disappointment and disunity,” over clerical sexual abuse.
The announcement comes following several months of intense scrutiny of Wuerl’s handling of sex abuse cases in the 1980s and 1990s in Pittsburgh, and after he publicly announced he would implore Pope Francis to let him resign. The resignation effects only Wuerl’s role as the Archbishop of Washington, and he remains a cardinal in good standing.
In a rare move, Francis has asked Wuerl to remain in the archdiocese as apostolic administrator until his successor is named, and also released a letter in which he praised Wuerl’s actions in seeking the good of his archdiocese over his own personal interests.
An apostolic administrator effectively serves as a “caretaker” of the archdiocese and is not empowered to make significant changes that would affect the incoming archbishop.
In response to Wuerl’s request for Francis to accept his resignation, the pope wrote: “I am aware that this request rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: To seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care.”
“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. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you,” he continued.
The decision, along with the pope’s letter, was released on Friday via a statement from the Holy See Press Office, followed by announcements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Archdiocese of Washington.
Wuerl, who is 77 years old, had already offered his resignation at the mandatory age of 75, although canon law allowed him to stay at his post with the pope’s approval.
One of the most prominent members of the U.S. hierarchy, and a staunch ally of Francis, Wuerl’s departure comes at a time when the global Catholic Church is struggling to turn a page on its handling of clerical sex abuse and cover-up.
While the issue of abuse has gripped the Church for the past two decades, a recent spotlight on cover-up, particularly by members of the hierarchy, has led to pressure for decisive action from the Vatican, eventually resulting in Wuerl’s decision to step aside.
In August, the Pennsylvania’s Attorney General released findings from a Grand Jury report chronicling over 70 years of clerical sex abuse and cover-up. More than 1,000 individual cases of abuse are outlined in the report at the hands of over 300 abuser priests.
Among the report’s most high-profile names was that of Wuerl, who served as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006.
Despite evidence that Wuerl traveled to Rome at one point in protest over the reinstatement of a priest accused of abuse, the report also detailed that, among other things, he was said to have not only authorized the transfer of known abuser priests, but he also authorized settlement and retirement funds for priests accused of sexual abuse and used diocesan funds to mitigate at least one priest’s sentence in a civil lawsuit.
While Wuerl has strongly defended his actions since the report’s release, maintaining that he “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” the fact that he received mention nearly 200 times in the report proved inescapable.
His situation was compounded by the still unknown facts surrounding his predecessor, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In July, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, following revelations of decades-long sexual abuse of seminarians and, at least in one alleged occasion, a minor.
The McCarrick saga has led to months of scrutiny of what the Vatican knew about the former cardinal’s history of sexual abuse and has led to disclosures from the dioceses of Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey that they had settled claims on behalf of McCarrick following his tenure as bishops of both sees.
Wuerl, however, has maintained that he was unaware of any such settlements.
Earlier this summer, just one week before Wuerl was set to deliver the opening keynote at the Vatican-organized World Meeting of Families, which took place in Dublin in August, he withdrew due to mounting pressure following the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report.
During that same week, a publisher announced it had cancelled publication of his forthcoming apologetics book due out this fall, while a Pittsburgh area high school named after the cardinal recently announced it was stripping Wuerl’s name from the institution.
Wuerl, who has shepherded Catholics in the nation’s capital since 2006, began his ecclesial career in Pittsburgh, where he served as secretary to Cardinal John Wright. From 1981 to 1985, he served as rector at St. Paul Seminary, before being named an auxiliary bishop to Seattle from 1986, until his move to Pittsburgh in 1988.
During his nearly twenty-year stint in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Wuerl sought to revitalize a struggling diocese where his “Parish Reorganization and Revitalization Project” became a model for other dioceses seeking to successively merge congregations. At the same time, his national profile began to strengthen as he took on leadership posts within the Knights of Malta and was a regular speaker at national catechetical conferences, leading to his eventual appointment to Washington in 2006.
In 2010, Benedict XVI elevated Wuerl to the cardinalate, where he built a reputation as one of his most loyal defenders. Such fidelity to the Petrine office continued under Francis, where, since 2013, he served on the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which is responsible for episcopal appointments around the world.
In recent years, Wuerl garnered a reputation for being one of the most prominent backers of Francis’s much discussed 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which provides a cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. This past March he released an archdiocesan pastoral plan for the implementation of Amoris, widely considered to be one of the most comprehensive in the world.
In Washington, Wuerl’s conciliatory tone - where he frequently favored dialogue over partisan demands - led him to work with the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations on issues ranging from immigration to religious liberty.
At the archdiocesan level, Wuerl was broadly seen as a capable administrator and known for the rigor in which he both adhered to and implemented protocols - a fact that many found hard to reconcile with the way in which he reportedly handled certain abuse cases during his tenure in Pittsburgh.
Wuerl’s leadership skills earned him broad respect among his brother prelates. As recently as Sept. 13, fellow Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was voicing support.
“He’s a good friend and he’s a tremendous leader among the bishops,” Dolan said of Wuerl. “I kinda hope he doesn’t resign. We need him.”
Upon news of his resignation, his auxiliary bishops in Washington - Mario Dorsonville, Roy Campbell, and Michael Fisher - released a joint statement praising him for his leadership, particularly his work with Catholic Charities and his founding of the Saint John Paul II Seminary, which is now at capacity.
“The cardinal’s decision shows that he has the heart of a shepherd who places the good of the Church and its needs before his own right to justify his actions,” they wrote. “His request and the Holy Father’s response allow the church of Washington to continue to focus on healing and the ability to move forward.”
Similarly, his Chancellor and General Counsel, Kim Viti Fiorentini, said, “His final decision to act in favor of the people he loved and served for twelve years is the most eloquent witness to the integrity of his ministry and his legacy. I am truly thankful for his steadfast fidelity and his courageous and sacrificial commitment to the future of the Church in Washington.”
Wuerl’s also issued a personal statement on Friday, wherein he thanked Pope Francis for his decision.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he continued. “My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you the people of the Church of Washington.”
As of Wuerl’s resignation, there are now five active residential cardinals in the United States.