Analysis: Pope’s acceptance of Wuerl resignation puts governance front and center

Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership does deserve criticism and rigorous scrutiny, but this is really about Pope Francis’s governance of the Church in a time of crisis.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington is pictured with Pope Francis during the pope's Mass in Washington Sept. 23, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl from the See of Washington, DC, on Friday, though Francis made Wuerl apostolic administrator of the capital archdiocese until the Pope names a successor — an unusual move given the circumstances of controversy, scandal, and crisis of confidence in Wuerl’s leadership and of the whole US hierarchy.

Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership of the Archdiocese has been under intense scrutiny since news broke on June 20th regarding his immediate predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, who is credibly alleged to be an inveterate pervert and serial abuser of children. Wuerl denies any prior knowledge of his disgraced predecessor’s proclivities, and claims to have been utterly deceived with respect to his predecessor’s character.

Wuerl continued to face increasingly severe criticism throughout the summer, especially in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which offered some qualified praise of Wuerl:

On June 30, 1989, Bishop Donald Wuerl sent a letter to the Vatican with respect to several diocesan priests who had recently been accused of sexually abusing children and whose cases had generated significant publicity. In the letter, Wuerl documented his diocesan policies for sexual abuse and stated his responsibility as Bishop was to determine the course of action in these cases. Wuerl wrote that Catholic parishioners had a right to know whether a priest accused of such crimes had been reassigned to their parish.

Further, Wuerl advised that due to the scandal caused by these priests, he initiated a review of any previous cases of diocesan priests who had been accused of “pedophilic activities” with minors. Wuerl warned the Vatican that Catholic bishops and dioceses could become liable once they are made aware of sexual abuse complaints and that priests who deny the “crime” of pedophilic activity with minors is “common in pedophiles” and that pedophilia is “incurable.”

The short version of the last few months is that Cardinal Wuerl was either telling the truth about his ignorance or was not—and either way lost the confidence of the faithful and his clergy. The revelations regarding Cardinal Wuerl’s record of leadership in Pittsburgh, however, were arguably what sounded the knell for him.

The report also recounts numerous of Wuerl’s failures of leadership as bishop of Pittsburgh, including Wuerl’s handling of the case of Fr. George Zirwas, repeatedly accused of abusing teenaged boys.

The Pennsylvania report details that Zirwas was first sent to St. Joseph Hospital for evaluation in March 1988, after a February allegation. Wuerl was named bishop of Pittsburgh in February, and was installed on March 25, 1988. In November, Wuerl sent Zirwas for further evaluation at St. Luke’s Institute following other complaints, and again returned him to ministry after Zirwas threatened to sue the diocese. The Grand Jury Report further details how then-Bishop Wuerl convinced Zirwas to recant a claim he knew of other sexual predators among the clergy in the diocese, ostensibly in exchange for an increase in the monthly cheque Zirwas received for living expenses.

In fairness to Cardinal Wuerl, those failures were in part conditioned by circumstance. Nor ought Francis be faulted for Pope St. John Paul II’s failure to police episcopal culture thirty years ago, or for Benedict XVI’s decision to raise a man capable of such failure. Painful as it must be, the whole history of failure from top to bottom must out, and soon. Francis is pope now, and the one man with power of right to bring what lurks in darkness into the light of day.

Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership does deserve criticism and rigorous scrutiny, both of which will likely confirm and flesh out what we already know: that Wuerl is a complex and complicated man of considerable talent and ability, who has been weak when he needed to be strong, and has too often been his own worst enemy.

At bottom, however, this is not about Cardinal Wuerl, or even his dastardly predecessor, “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. This is about Pope Francis’s governance of the Church in a time of crisis.

As a governor of the Church, Pope Francis seems to want it both ways. He praises Cardinal Wuerl as a Christ-like shepherd for his request that Francis accept his resignation, even comparing Wuerl’s professed concern over the unity of the Church to Christ’s own high priestly prayer at the Last Supper. Francis even praises Wuerl’s “nobility” in giving his nunc dimittis:

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.

The issue here is not the sincerity of Wuerl’s or Francis’s desire to act for the good of the Church. Fr. David Poecking of the Diocese of Pittsburgh told the Catholic World Report, “With Pope Francis, I can believe that the Cardinal truly resigned for the good of the Church.” Fr. Poecking also told CWR, “In his former role as Bishop of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Wuerl in my experience persistently held the clergy accountable to the standards of civil law.”

Fr. Poecking went on to say, “Pope Francis, in a letter perhaps intended as much for Cardinal Wuerl as for the general public, alludes to ‘mistakes’ in a manner that might seem dismissive to those affected by the sexual abuse of minors, but otherwise correctly distinguishes mistakes from ‘what it means to cover up crimes or not deal with problems.’”

In any case, neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal Wuerl may reasonably expect the faithful to be satisfied that, with Wuerl out, the Church in the capital archdiocese — or the United States or anywhere else — can return to business as usual. Nevertheless, that is the thing for which both seem to hope.

“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,” said Cardinal Wuerl in a prepared statement. Cardinal Wuerl’s desire to let the healing begin appears to dovetail with some expressions found in the closing lines of Pope Francis’s own letter. “In this way,” Pope Francis writes, “you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the Church.”

One wonders why Pope Francis should have seen fit to offer such mellifluous — if not improbable — praise. There are also the outstanding questions regarding the Papal Foundation and the $25 million loan Cardinal Wuerl secured as the Foundation’s chairman, an act of loyalty to the Holy Father that has already done significant damage to reputations both personal and institutional, and could do worse, yet.

Pope Francis has accepted resignations from high-profile Churchmen in the past, including from high-profile figures who have got themselves in hot water. One thinks of the man, who was his personal choice to lead what is now styled the Dicastery for Communication, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, whose spectacular botch of a book launch in March led to his ouster — sort of.

Whether Pope Francis’s apparent reluctance to remove figures of proven loyalty is due to a belief in the policy of standing by one’s allies, or propensity for resistance to pressure — especially when it comes in the form of bad press — or from a desire to keep trusted advisers close by, rigorous adherence to the policy is not without a significant downside. Regardless, whether Wuerl is in or out, the McCarrick scandal is not going away. It sits as a cloud over the whole US hierarchy, even as it reaches the highest echelons of governance of the universal Church.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 179 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. There is a pattern here.
    Wasn’t it earlier this year the Vatican communications chief, (also named Viganò) resigned after doctoring Pope Benedict’s letters? Wasen’t he actually kept onboard in the same office at a different desk with a different title? Yup.
    And now amid all this mess in DC with McCarrick, Wuerl’s resignation is accepted but, guess what dear pewsitters,
    Wuerl gets to stay onboard but with a different title. Only until Francis picks a replacement…of course.
    What a bloody insulting joke of a process.

  2. Great news for the sacrament of reconciliation. According to Francis we can “justify” our sins before Christ because they aren’t really sins but only mistakes. Wow.

    How have we had so much wrong for 2000 years?

    Mary was just a normal girl. Christ didn’t know what he was talking about. Church practice has been wrong for so long. How did we get so far knowing so little?

  3. “though Francis made Wuerl apostolic administrator of the capital archdiocese until the Pope names a successor — an unusual move given the circumstances of controversy, scandal, and crisis of confidence in Wuerl’s leadership and of the whole US hierarchy.”

    Not an unusual move for this pope.

  4. Is Pope Francis suggesting that the noblest path for bishops who have made mistakes handling the issue of clergy sex abuse is to resign? Would it be “ignoble” to stay on if one has made such mistakes? What mistakes should be considered serious enough leading to voluntary resignation? Is a bishop entitled to the “mistake defense” if it justly applies to his circumstance and if he so chooses to employ it? Or would it be universally better for the Church if a bishop lay down this defense and resign admitting his mistakes? If Pope Francis were to answer these questions in an apostolic letter to the bishops and to all the people he would do a great service to the Church; he would be clarifying in the way a shepherd should clarify and laying out a plan for the Church. Instead, all we have is a loaded statement by Francis which leaves us all questioning. This approach is in no way pastoral but will only lengthen an already confusing and disheartening process.

    • Oct. 12th, Card. Wuerl is past retirement age so this is not an important step. He is given a prestigious post now by Pope France and I assume he will continue to live like a Prince and his lavish apartment? No Bishops should be living like Princes – none!! How many millions have been taken from Parishioners to pay for their lavishness? There should be regulations put into place from now on that there must be a simpler way of living for Bishops and Priests – for all of them. And there should be a thorough, Parish by Parish, Bishop by Bishop, financial investigation and accountability. Jesus had nowhere to lay His head – we must not forget this…ever!

      • In fact no Christian should live a lavish lifestyle – that bishops and priests should not live lavishly should certainly be part of any clear and firm apostolic instruction on the issue at hand.

    • But let’s be honest, here. Nearly, if not all bishops who dealt with abuse cases before the Dallas Charter went into effect had clear guidance from either standard ecclesiastical practice, canon law or from criminal (civil) law. The way things are being handled now, of course, is entirely different. How can somebody be “guilty” of an action for which there are varying and conflicting procedures in the absence of clear and comprehensive guidance? The one pernicious item, however, is how the good cardinal was able to be blackmailed into a non-disclosure agreement by one of his priests–and how said priest was able to get away with it.

  5. Cardinal Wuerl and Pope Francis display their clericalist contempt for the truth, and all who seek it.

    May everything drag on for them, as they weigh themselves down with each passing day.

  6. During this Month of the Rosary, it’s becoming clearer that the hierarchy is beyond the point of reforming itself. Of course, when it comes to Cardinals and Bishops, it’s on Bergoglio.

    The pastoral staff held by Bergoglio at the beginning of the Youth Synod (chosen by Spadaro?) says it all. Why talk about the “consolation of a crucifix” yet walk around with that? An attempt to be relevant? A way to “listen?” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see we no longer preach Christ Crucified. You can Google discussion of Bergoglio staff BTW for other viewpoints, identifications, comparisons.

    In reality, fair to say, the hierarchy is more ashamed of the Magisterium and a prominently placed, publicly viewed “offending”crucifix than the sexual scandal itself. They are incapable of truly registering the outrage of the laity in particular because for Cardinals, Bishops and those they know so well, it’s “what they do.” Their “outrage” is of the “as if” variety, an extrapolated, faux “shame” minus convincing, proportionate action. Apparently the newly discovered sense of “human dignity” along with membership benefits applies to hierarchy first and foremost and especially to the Pope, who it is now possible to provide a criticism or challenge of that is “even blasphemous.” Aside: maybe another perk of Existentialist Thomism to the max is that essence plus actuality/potentiality are sort of out the window, and “divinity” is just simply “lots of humanity.” For another time..

    The Papal Foundation and Bergoglio’s brand of Mercy: 2 sides of the same coin…lots of “coin.” And the degree to which money figures in all of this continues to be submerged in the sexual content. This is a sexual/money scandal. One more time: this is a sexual/money scandal.

    Cardinal Cardinal Coccopalmerio? President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts until last April. Just Google his name. Is he helping out onhow to deal with Vigano?

    If the Catholic laity could do what happened in Chile…world wide…

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

  7. This ain’t working. Harken back just a few years and Roger Mahony and Bernard Law. Mahony oversaw the Orange California dieses. During his tenure Mahony received a Mexican City priest Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera known for his raping youngsters. Mahony welcomed him with open arms. Mahony covered up Agular’s criminal deeds while he served under Mahony. What happened to Mahony… he was invited to the Vatican to vote for Pope Francis. Some recognition.

    Cardinal Law was even more evil with his cover up of Frs. John Geoghan and Paul Shanley. Law attempts to resign his position as Archbishop of Boston; Pope John Paul II rejects the resignation. What can that reveal about the churches integrity to name saints? Then Law denies knowing about the allegations of sexual abuse against Rev. Shanley until 1993. Shanley was a card carrying member of NAMBLA and operated a homosexual motel. Outrageous. After all this Pope John Paul II sweeps Law into the Vatican and installs him as archpriest. In order to grasp this nonsense the civil authorities must be involved, not cannon law.

  8. It sounds as if Pope Francis is going to keep Wuerl around, and perhaps give him a job in the Vatican with the other homosexuals he has installed there. Or, Francis will waith for the whole thing to blow over, and then say, Gee I can’t find anyone better than you for Washington, so you can stay on. Never trust Pope Francis is any matter.

  9. Exactly how long does it take to accept a resignation? How many round trips to Roma are required? Are we collecting frequent flier miles for the poor?
    Such theatrics are beneath the offices they hold, but then the individuals who hold them appear unsuited for any adult responsibility at all.
    It is as if we are watching the Keystone Katholic Kops living by “Downton Abbey” protocols for an audience of morons. Well then Wuerl isn’t going far at all after all and we all will have to wait for the next neutron bomb to hit before he will. Not even the recent Msgr. Rossi grenades could shake the high and mighty out of their delirium. Could it be they are all suffering from dissociative reaction? Call the psychological screening teams from multiple dioceses and see what they discern?
    It is absolutely mortifying, and agonizing to boot.
    Time to bust this bubble and kick the lads out of the sandbox…or the doll house…whatever.
    Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras with all the filth – sexual and fiscal – dug up in his household still holds his position there as well as pride of place in crew of nine Cardinal advisors surrounding Pope Bergoglio. He tendered his resignation as required by age at the end of 2017.
    Perhaps it is just too difficult to find replacements for such episcopal geniuses.

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