Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Donald Wuerl on Friday, after Wuerl was implicated in several cover-ups of child sex abuse over the past few decades. The move comes after weeks of speculation that Francis was considering allowing Wuerl to resign. As is customary among Catholic archbishops, Wuerl had automatically submitted a resignation letter to Francis when he turned 75, two years ago. Francis rejected his resignation, however, as is also customary, and Wuerl has served at Francis’s pleasure ever since, unable to leave his post without Francis’s permission.
Since his implication in the abuse crisis, however, Wuerl’s days have been numbered. Last month, Wuerl told priests in his archdiocese that Francis had asked him to pray, reflect, and consult with his subordinates about his fate before the pontiff made a final decision.
”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 Wuerl in a statement. “It permits this local Church to move forward. Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon.”
The Archdiocese of Washington also released a letter quoting Francis, who praised Wuerl’s acceptance of responsibility. ”Your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence,” the letter quotes Francis as saying. “Of this, I am proud and thank you.” Wuerl will retain the title of cardinal and will remain in his post until a replacement has been found.
Wuerl is the highest-profile cleric yet to face consequences for the sex abuse crisis
Although he has not been accused of sexual misconduct himself, Wuerl is the highest-ranking American Catholic official to be directly implicated in the abuse crisis.
In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report implicating at least 300 priests in that state of abusing more than 1,000 minors over the past five decades. Wuerl is accused of having helped quietly reshuffle priests accused of abuse to other parishes, where they had the opportunity to reoffend, during his time as bishop and then archbishop of Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2006.
Wuerl has also been accused of failing to report the actions of his predecessor in DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who left active ministry in July after revelations emerged that he had serially sexually abused both adult seminarians under his authority as well as at least two minors over a period of decades.
In a letter accusing Pope Francis of lifting sanctions against McCarrick imposed by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, ex-Vatican official Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò accused Wuerl of “putting … seminarians at risk” by encouraging McCormick to continue with public ministry. (Viganò has not suggested that either Francis or Wuerl was aware of any allegations about McCarrick’s behavior with minors.)
Wuerl’s resignation represents among the most concrete consequences yet of the Catholic sex abuse crisis in the United States, and heralds that the Vatican may be taking the crisis with renewed seriousness. Such efforts may yet improve the pope’s standing among Catholics, seven out of 10 whom report feeling that he has done an unsatisfactory job in combating clerical abuse.
While Francis has announced other initiatives to address the crisis, including a global summit on the issue in February 2019, his acceptance of Wuerl’s resignation suggests that the Vatican is prepared to mete out real consequences to those seen as having abetted the sex abuse crisis, or aided in cover-ups.
What all this means for Francis’s papacy, however, is unclear. After all, the Viganò letter also accused Francis of participating in the McCarrick cover-up, and Francis has continually refused to comment on Viganò’s allegations against him. And his vocal defense of Wuerl, despite accepting his resignation, suggests that Wuerl will remain a trusted and well-regarded figure in the Vatican.
Still, for an institution historically resistant to calls for accountability, Francis’s acceptance of Wuerl’s resignation remains a promising first step. It remains to be seen where the church will go from here.