D.C.’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, became a symbol of the Catholic Church’s defensiveness and willful blindness to clerical sex abuse in the United States after a devastating Philadelphia grand-jury report concluded in August that he had covered for accused clergymen during his 18 years serving as the bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. On Friday, Pope Francis accepted his resignation.
Wuerl, 77, one of the most prominent members of the Catholic Church to be taken down by the decadeslong sexual abuse scandal, had been a supporter of Francis’, and Francis made it clear in his letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation that he still stood by his ally.
In the letter, Francis did not criticize Wuerl’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, arguing that Wuerl had “sufficient elements to ‘justify’ ” his decisions. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense,” Francis wrote. “Of this, I am proud and thank you. In this way, you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project.”
Before he offered to resign last month, Wuerl had dismissed his role in the scandal, insisting he acted “with diligence.” He was accused of allowing accused priests to return to their duties or to resign quietly with a pension, but he has also defended himself by citing one instance in which he stood up to the Vatican in refusing to allow an accused priest to return to the priesthood.
Most notably, he has been accused of failing to act on years of rumors about sexual abuse by his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned in July.
“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,” Wuerl said in a statement Friday. “Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon.”
Wuerl will not completely relinquish his place in the church’s hierarchy. According to the Washington Post, he will keep his position in the Congregation of Bishops, which plays a role in selecting bishops. He will also remain an “apostolic administrator” in the archdiocese until a successor is found.
Pope Francis has been criticized for his complacency in the face of yet another round of explosive allegations of sexual abuse. In August he issued an unprecedented apology to Catholics worldwide, admitting to the Vatican’s harmful complacency and promising that “no effort” would be spared to change the culture in the church’s leadership that allowed abuse—and broader conspiracies to conceal it—to flourish.
That apology followed growing frustration among victims and their advocates toward the pope, who had not shown himself to be the reformer they had hoped for—particularly when he accused alleged victims of a Chilean bishop of slander. Francis’ letter of apology came a week after the Philadelphia grand-jury report found more than 1,000 credible victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the state’s Catholic clergy.