ROME – Make no mistake: Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned today because of allegations of mishandling cases of clerical sexual abuse, and if he were to die tomorrow, his role in the abuse scandals would be how his obituary opened.
However fair that linkage may be, it doesn’t matter. His resignation at this time, and under these circumstances, effectively sets it in cement.
(Granted, critics will say it’s a curious sort of resignation since Wuerl has been named apostolic administrator, effectively leaving him in charge of the Archdiocese of Washington until a successor is named. Symbolically, however, the resignation still matters, because it comes off as a concession that a price had to be paid.)
Yet scandals often have the paradoxical effect of both clarifying and distorting. They clarify in the sense that they force institutions to face truths they often do their best to avoid, but they also distort in that they generate so much noise and commotion that other important truths can be blocked from view.
In Wuerl’s case, one of those truths is that while the abuse crisis is now a critically important chapter in his story, it’s hardly the entire narrative.
Before the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in mid-August, the book on Donald Wuerl would have been that he was among the most influential churchmen in American Catholicism over the last fifty years, and arguably the single most important of the last 20. He was often the glue holding a divided bishops’ conference in America together, and he was also the most important interpreter and ally of Pope Francis in a sometimes-skeptical Catholic culture in the U.S.
On the abuse crisis, Wuerl also would have been seen as among the more aggressive American bishops in supporting and implementing a “zero tolerance” policy – ironically, a reputation that reached back to his time as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
Those things remain as true today as they were two months ago when the fracas around his record in Pittsburgh began, and despite everything that’s happened since – including the Pennsylvania Attorney General publicly calling him a liar, calls for his resignation from some of his own priests, and so on – those other aspects of his story haven’t lost their relevance.
To begin with, there’s a keen irony in the fact that Wuerl’s career as a Catholic bishop began with taking a hit for the team, more or less the same way it’s now ending.
In 1986, a young Wuerl was put in an impossible position in Seattle when he was named an auxiliary bishop with authority over several key areas, in what was obviously a vote of no confidence from Rome about the leadership of progressive Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. As Hunthausen rallied his friends in the U.S. bishops’ conference and eventually succeeded in having his powers returned, Wuerl was styled as the bad guy, “Rome’s hatchet man,” while insiders would say that he was simply doing his best to try to keep the peace.
Wuerl did his job in Seattle without complaint, and he withdrew without public fireworks when it was over. In the end the two men became friends, and Wuerl once said he learned a great deal about how to be a bishop from Hunthausen, who died this July at the age of 96.
That’s a pattern that would always characterize his approach – no matter what may be going on inside, in public Wuerl comes off as gracious and calm.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, as ideological battles raged within the U.S. bishops’ conference over issues from liturgical translation to communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians, Wuerl was always a bridge-builder. He was able to forge behind-the-scenes consensus because he was trusted by virtually all parties as someone who wouldn’t embarrass them in public, and because he was seen as at least somewhat sympathetic to their points of view.
(Jokingly, it used to be said of Wuerl that no matter what room he ever walked into, he would instinctively find the dead center and stand there. That profile as a consummate centrist often frustrated people closer to either end of the spectrum, but it also made him the glue that held the conference together at critical moments.)
As far back as 1988, Wuerl also developed a reputation as a leader on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. Famously, as the Bishop of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s he travelled to Rome to protest a Vatican ruling to overturn his decision to laicize an abuser priest, and he prevailed in making his will stick.
No matter how Wuerl’s handling of the cases outlined in the grand jury report is eventually assessed, the fact that the U.S. bishops have a zero tolerance policy at all is, to some extent, due to his influence.
For the last five years, Wuerl has also been the single most important voice within the U.S. hierarchy defending Francis, at a time when some other American bishops and Catholic leaders have struck discordant notes. His loyalty no doubt helps explain why Francis went out of his way today to shower Wuerl with praise, saying, among other things, he’s putting “the good of the Church” above his own personal interests.
Finally, it’s important to say this: If Francis’s letter today makes anything clear, it’s that he hasn’t lost any respect or esteem for Wuerl — if anything, he appears to hold him in even higher regard for the “nobility” of his exit.
That could mean Wuerl’s role as a “chief conduit” between the U.S. Church and Francis will stay in place, and his influence with the pope is unlikely to be diminished — if anything, since his retirement may afford him more time in Rome, it might even grow.
As a result, there may yet be even more chapters to add to the Donald Wuerl story.