Today marks Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s long-awaited arrival in Washington, D.C. But while all eyes and expectations are focused on the new man in the capital see, some thought should be spared for the one he replaces: Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Between the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August—in which he was named more than 200 times—and the luciferian fall from grace of his own predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl has spent much of his last year in Washington under a cloud of scandal. Many Catholics and commentators have vocally anticipated Wuerl’s departure for months, even before Gregory’s name was announced. But despite those content to see Wuerl as forever linked with McCarrick, and to bracket them both with scandal and abuse, Wuerl deserves to be remembered for more than the scandals of his final year in office.
As bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl was years ahead of his peers in responding to what would become the sexual abuse crisis. From the moment he arrived as bishop in 1988, Wuerl was meeting personally with victims at a time when many bishops would not even consider doing so. Within a year, Wuerl had established a diocesan committee to evaluate policies for responding to abuse allegations, a committee that grew to become the current Diocesan Review Board, nearly a decade before the Dallas Charter called for every diocese to have such a body. Wuerl also imposed a personal policy of “zero-tolerance” which stands comparison to any other diocesan policy today.
Despite the grand jury report’s frequent mentions of Wuerl, that document cannot dent the core statistic: During Wuerl’s nineteen years as bishop of Pittsburgh, nineteen new allegations were brought forward against diocesan priests, and eighteen of these priests were immediately and permanently removed from ministry. And curial officials have not forgotten the time Wuerl flew to Rome to personally resist an order to reinstate an accused cleric, a contest of wills he eventually won.
In Washington, Wuerl’s reputation as an administrator has been broadly above criticism. He has brought the archdiocese into rude financial health while budgeting more than $6 million in scholarships for Catholic schools, funding and growing the annual Mass and Rally for Life alongside the March for Life, and founding the St. John Paul II college seminary. In a politically obsessed city, he has managed to stay above the partisan fray—often to the frustration of Catholics who would prefer to see a more partisan approach—while still taking a leading role in opposing the encroachment of Obamacare on religious liberties.
Had he retired at 75, as bishops are required to do unless asked to continue by the pope, he would likely be remembered as a competent archbishop and a quietly influential champion of abuse reform. But of course, he did not retire then, and many will now remember him only for asserting that he never heard even a rumor about his predecessor, McCarrick. Those denials, initially hard to believe, came under closer scrutiny following the allegations of former papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò. Subsequent reporting cast doubt on his claims to be totally unaware of any reason to suspect McCarrick, or of any measures taken by Rome to displace him from the archdiocesan seminary where he was living in retirement.
Skepticism turned to scandal when it emerged that even while in Pittsburgh he had personally forwarded to Rome a seminarian’s complaint about McCarrick’s now-infamous beach house. Furor turned to farce as Wuerl first insisted he was trying to protect the confidentiality of the victim, then claimed to have forgotten the entire event by the time he arrived to replace McCarrick in Washington.
While criticism of Wuerl’s opacity is more than deserved, it is worth noting that no one has suggested he ever failed to report abuse, follow proper procedures, or act when necessary—indeed, the questions he leaves unanswered suggest he knew and did more than he is willing to acknowledge. Those closest to him insist that his “reticence” to say everything he knows, even now, is rooted not in loyalty to his brother bishops, but in the succession of popes whose actions he is unwilling to second-guess in public.
He is, his friends insist, a loyal man. But in the current climate, that loyalty has become synonymous with the culture of clericalism now out of fashion, and it has come at a cost to more people than just him. During the USCCB’s autumn assembly in Baltimore last November, Wuerl noted from the floor that a clear lack of transparency and personal accountability among bishops was at the core of the current crisis.
“Transparency on the level of a diocese but [also] transparency on the level of all of us working together: I think that is going to be a very significant factor,” he said. “Part of purification is [that] sometimes we simply have to take personal responsibility.” By his own assessment, then, his past denials and obfuscations have contributed to the current scandal.
During his first press conference after being named Wuerl’s successor, Archbishop Gregory insisted his first priority in Washington would be to “tell the truth” while denouncing the habit of “circling of the wagons” to minimize scandal. “I think this moment has shown the folly of that approach to episcopal governance and episcopal collegiality,” he said.
Gregory’s willingness to embrace the transparency his predecessor could not will likely prove the measure by which he is judged. It should also be a large part of the measure by which a final reckoning is made of Wuerl’s career. But only a part.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.
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