The Archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, says the Church is in a moment of grave crisis, and affirms that the laity have a right to participate in roles of responsibility when it comes to the investigation and oversight of bishops’ conduct. The statements came in an exclusive interview on Saturday with Christopher R. Altieri, reporting for Catholic World Report. Cardinal Wuerl had made remarks to Salt & Light television earlier in the week, in which he appeared to downplay the significance of the crisis of confidence in the bishops’ leadership in the wake of serious misconduct allegations against Cardinal Wuerl’s predecessor in Washington, Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick has resigned from the College of Cardinals and is facing canonical trial on charges he sexually abused at least one minor.
Since the “credible and substantiated” accusation first came before the public in June, numerous other persons — many of them clerics or former clerics, or seminarians — have come forward with allegations of grave misconduct dating back years. The information come to light thus far has raised serious questions about the conduct of the US bishops with regard to the policing of their own ranks and their care for the moral culture of the clergy more generally.
Cardinal Wuerl told Salt & Light, “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” Speaking specifically of the news about his predecessor, McCarrick, Cardinal Wuerl went on to say, “It was a terrible disappointment.”
Speaking to Catholic World Report, on Saturday morning, Cardinal Wuerl clarified that he does, in fact, believe the crisis to be very serious. Nevertheless, he feels it is not insuperable.
“I think it’s important to take a look at, and to listen to the context,” he told CWR. “The context of that whole discussion [with Salt & Light] was: The Church is facing a very grave situation. There’s an erosion of confidence — in fact, there’s a breakdown — right now, of credibility.” Cardinal Wuerl went on to say, “This is a very grave moment, a situation of very real crisis. That crisis should not overwhelm us. We should be able as lay women, lay men, and bishops, to confront it and to resolve it.”
In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter published Monday, Cardinal Wuerl had seemed to suggest that the bishops needed to find a way to address the crisis by themselves, and for themselves. “Would we have some sort of a panel, a board, of bishops,” he offered, “where we would take it upon ourselves, or a number of bishops would be deputed, to ask about those rumors [of episcopal misconduct]?” He is further quoted as saying, “It seems to me that’s one possibility, that there would be some way for the bishops, and that would mean working through our conference … to be able to address the question of sustained rumors.”
On Wednesday, Cardinal Wuerl was discussing a sort of partnership between existing structures, which are creatures of the US Bishops’ Conference. “What I’m suggesting,” Cardinal Wuerl told Salt & Light, “is [that] we already have a National Review Board made up of lay people: why don’t we take from our Conference a number of Bishops — different committees — to work with and invite the National Review Board to join them. So, now we have a permanent body, and if someone has an accusation they want to bring, they can bring it there.”
Cardinal Wuerl on Saturday clarified to CWR that he feels there must be a stable and independent oversight body with responsible lay participation. He also feels the body must be established as soon as possible, and that the bishops cannot wait for their Fall meeting to begin discussing the shape it will take, even if a full working-out of the ecclesiological implications of the crisis and its redress will take some time.
“[T]he first thing we need is to put into place some sort of mechanism by which we can actually do what’s being suggested,” he said, “and I have suggested to our conference of Bishops that there should be some sort of an independent board established.” His Eminence also said, “It would have lay women, lay men — but also bishops — on it, and one of its functions would be to receive an allegation, to receive [any] complaint, so there is a place to which that complaint can go, where there is a sense of accountability but also a sense of autonomy.”
Cardinal Wuerl also said that any such stable and autonomous board must have a broad mandate, not only to deal with future allegations, but also to look into the bishops’ past conduct. He told CWR the scope of any investigation and oversight mandate ought to be comprehensive.
“Now that board, once it’s set up, should also then have as its prerogative to look at what it wants to call into question. Whether it’s looking to the past, or whether it’s moving into the future, the goal is to establish something that would engage lay women and lay men together with bishops — that is, flock and shepherds — working together to address this very grave crisis of credibility.”
An autonomous body with a broad mandate would not only be able to investigate and oversee bishops’ behavior toward minors, but also look at their records with regard to clergy, seminarians, and adult lay people. It would also be broad enough to countenance scrutiny of bishops’ efforts — past, present, and future — to foster a sane moral culture among the clergy, starting in houses of priestly formation.
CWR asked Cardinal Wuerl whether he believes the laity have a right to roles of responsibility in the necessary investigation and oversight efforts. “[T]he laity do have a place,” he responded, “a moral place — a right in that sense — to participate in whatever is going on in the life of the Church.”
Below is a transcript — slightly edited for clarity — of Cardinal Wuerl’s conversation with Christopher R. Altieri for the Catholic World Report.
Christopher Altieri for CWR: Your Eminence, do you have anything you would like to clarify with regard to the remarks you made in your conversation with Salt & Light?
Donald Cardinal Wuerl: I think it’s important to take a look at, and to listen to the context. The context of that whole discussion was: the church is facing a very grave situation. There’s an erosion of confidence – in fact there’s a breakdown – right now, of credibility, and what I was saying and will say again now is: in the context of clergy and laity, laity and clergy – and I used the example of Shepherd and flock, parishioners and pastors — in that context there should be nothing that is so overwhelming that we can’t deal with it. That was the context of those comments I made. This is a very grave moment — a situation of very real crisis. That crisis should not overwhelm us. We should be able as lay women, lay men, and bishops, to confront it and to be able to resolve it.
CWR: You spoke then and seem to be speaking now about going forward: that raises the question about how much looking backward we need to do. There have been calls for an investigation — an independent investigation — one thinks specifically of Bishop Scharfenberger from Albany, who strongly suggested that the laity should have a responsible role in any such investigation. I’m wondering about your thoughts on that: do we need to look back right now?
DCW: I think what we need first of all is to put into place — and this is what I have been saying in all of those interviews and in the material that I have sent out for use — the first thing we need is to put into place some sort of mechanism by which we can actually do what’s being suggested, and I have suggested to our conference of Bishops that there be some sort of an independent board established. It would have lay women, lay men, but also bishops on it: and it would have as its — one of its functions — to receive an allegation, to receive some complaint, so there is a place to which that complaint can go, where there is a sense of accountability but also a sense of autonomy. Now that board, once it’s set up, should also then have as its prerogative to look at what it wants to call into question: whether it’s looking to the past, or whether it’s moving into the future, the goal is to establish something that would engage lay women and lay men together with bishops — that is, flock and shepherd — working together to address this very grave crisis of credibility.
CWR: Do the laity then have a right — a moral right, whatever its expression in Canon Law, whether at the universal level or at the level of particular law — whatever that might look like now or in the future: do the laity have a right to responsible participation either in an investigation or in a stable oversight body or mechanism?
I think one of the things we’ve already seen — and this is, I believe, a response to the II Vatican Council, and Pope Francis is the strongest voice in this — is the role of the laity in the life of the Church. And I am wondering if we don’t have expressions of that now: for example, the National Review Board and our National Advisory Council. But to have the recognition that, as we go forward, in whatever we’re doing, lay people should be engaged. I think we’re seeing more and more the recognition that that’s the best way for the church to move forward.
CWR: Well, I guess I’m asking the question, Your Eminence — if I could just push you a little on this a little bit — because I think there is broad agreement that the laity should be involved as a matter of prudence right now — and you spoke to the question of the credibility deficit that the bishops have: Do the laity have a right — a moral right, independent of the question of the right’s expression in Canon Law — to be involved in investigation and oversight in a responsible way?
DCW: How about if we word it this way: because, once you use the word, “right,” then — you yourself have already said — are we talking about a canonical right? Are we talking about a constitutional right? Are we talking about a legal right? Are we talking about a moral right? Are we talking about an ecclesial right? How about if we said: It is absolutely clear in the theology of the Church, that the laity have a role in the life of the Church, and that role includes the exercise of their baptismal obligations and their baptismal responsibilities. So, in answer to your question, I think there is a place — a very significant place — for the laity in all the activity of the Church. That’s merely confirming what the II Vatican Council affirmed. Now, how that is spelled out is something that — as you said — we’re going to need a lot of time to work on that. But, yes, the laity do have a place — they have a moral place — a right in that sense — to participate in whatever is going on in the life of the Church. That has to be seen in the way it is expressed in the II Vatican Council, in the Decree on the Laity, also Lumen gentium — the structure and nature of the Church — but in both of those documents, there’s a significant role of the laity in the life of the Church, and as Pope Francis keeps telling us, the Church is not just the bishops and clergy.