Cardinal Donald Wuerl (left, with Pope Francis in 2015), was named 200 times in a US Grand Jury report. (AP: David Goldman)
The archbishop of Washington DC stepped down over the handling of sex abuse cases but received praise from the Pope, drawing criticism from campaigners who said it showed the Catholic Church cared more for its leaders than abuse victims.
- Cardinal Wuerl is named 200 times in a report on sexual abuse
- Pope Francis has said the devil is behind clergy abuse
- The Pope’s letter puts clergy before abused children, victims say
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a loyal ally of Pope Francis, was criticised in a US grand jury report in August for failing to halt abuse in his previous role as archbishop of Pittsburgh.
He becomes one of the highest-ranking Catholic leaders to step aside over global accusations that the church harboured sex abusers.
His resignation also further exposes a rift between Pope Francis and members of the church’s conservative wing, some of whom say the Pope himself should quit over the sex abuse crisis.
In a glowing letter of support, Pope Francis made clear that he accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation reluctantly and believed he was not guilty of trying to conceal abuse.
“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 wrote.
“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
Victims advocacy groups were outraged, according to Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org.
“The pope’s letter to Cardinal Wuerl sends a clear message that for Pope Francis, Cardinal Wuerl is more important than the children he put in harm’s way,” he said.
“Until Pope Francis reverses this emphasis on coddling the hierarchy at the expense of children, the Catholic Church will never emerge from this crisis,” he said in a statement.
Errors in judgment
Cardinal Wuerl has come under fire since the release in August of a US Grand Jury report on sexual abuse which found evidence that at least 1,000 people, mostly children, had been sexually abused by some 300 clergymen over the course of 70 years.
The report covered six dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, where Cardinal Wuerl served as archbishop from 1998–2006.
The report mentioned Cardinal Wuerl’s name more than 200 times.
He has defended his overall record in Pittsburgh.
In a statement thanking the Pope, Cardinal Wuerl said he apologised for “any past errors in judgment”.
“My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you, the people of the Church of Washington,” he said.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl, pictured praying in Washington in 2010, has resigned after becoming embroiled in sex scandal cover-ups. (AP: Alex Brandon)
Cardinal Wuerl has also been accused of knowing that his predecessor in Washington, ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had forced male adult seminarians to have sex with him years ago.
Cardinal Wuerl denies having been aware.
In July Mr McCarrick became the first cardinal in about 100 years to be stripped of his red hat and title of “eminence”.
Pope Francis ordered Mr McCarrick to retire to a life of prayer and penitence after American church officials said, as part of a separate investigation, that allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.
Pope Francis has said the devil is ultimately behind the sexual abuse of children committed by priests.
In a highly unusual move, Pope Francis asked Cardinal Wuerl to stay on as administrator of the Washington diocese until another archbishop could be appointed.
Usually a new bishop is announced at the same time as such a resignation.
The Washington position is the most important and visible for the Catholic Church in the United States because of its proximity to national political power.