WASHINGTON, D.C. – Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington on Thursday recognized calls for new leadership in the archdiocese, including from local priests, but did not say whether he was considering stepping down.
In a September 6 letter to the priests of the archdiocese, Wuerl referenced a 90-minute period of prayer and discernment he had held with the priests of the diocese three days earlier, before the annual Labor Day cookout.
“Among the many observations was that the archdiocese would be well served by new leadership to help move beyond the current confusion, disappointment and disunity,” he said in the letter.
Wuerl, who has faced growing calls for resignation over allegations of mishandling abuse reports, did not elaborate on his future leadership intentions. Sources have told CNA that Wuerl had hoped to stay on as Archbishop of Washington until the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly in November.
In his letter, the cardinal said that in his discussion with priests, he “also heard voices calling for the beginning of healing. This I believe we need to do now.”
Wuerl proposed a six–week “Season of Healing” beginning Friday, September 14 as a time for prayer and recognition of the suffering of abuse victims.
“This six-week ‘Season’ would use each Friday as a time when, as a Church, we could be united in prayer,” he said. “This could take whatever form of prayer you consider appropriate…I will celebrate a Penitential Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle on September 14 to initiate this ‘Season’.”
Wuerl also promised to provide resources for the priests to respond to abuse survivors who may reach out to them. He said he is planning a one-day healing retreat for abuse victims, which will include both prayer and opportunities for professional counseling.
In recent weeks, Wuerl has faced questions over his knowledge of the alleged sexually coercive behavior of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick has faced mounting allegations that he serially sexually abused two adolescent boys, and spent decades committing acts of sexual assault and coercion toward seminarians and young priests. In 2005 and 2007, two New Jersey dioceses reached settlements with alleged victims of McCarrick.
Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick as Archbishop of Washington in 2006, reports having had no knowledge of those settlements, or of any complaints about sexually abusive behavior on the part of McCarrick, who continued to live and minister in the Archdiocese of Washington subsequent to his retirement.
The cardinal has in recent weeks called for lay participation in new oversight structures to ensure episcopal accountability.
The Aug. 14 release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sex abuse of minors only heightened public scrutiny of Wuerl, particularly regarding the way he managed priests who had been accused of sexual assault during his tenure of Bishop of Pittsburgh, from 1988 to 2006.
The report said that in one case, Wuerl authorized the transfer and continued ministry of a priest who had been accused of committing acts of sexual abuse decades earlier.
Wuerl has denied having had knowledge of the allegations at the time he authorized the transfer, but questions remain unanswered regarding his management of that case and others.
In an Aug. 14 statement, Wuerl defended his record of handling sexual abuse allegations.
“While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” he wrote. “I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.”
Soon after his appointment as Bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl established a diocesan committee in 1989 to evaluate policies for responding to abuse allegations. This committee grew to become the Diocesan Review Board, nearly a decade before the Dallas Charter called for every diocese to have such a body.
Wuerl has said that while in Pittsburgh, he implemented a policy that formally encouraged Catholics making complaints to also report them directly to law enforcement agencies, and sometimes informed civil authorities himself, even against the express wishes of the person making the allegations.