DUBLIN – An already challenging trip to Ireland for Pope Francis next weekend became even more vexing on Saturday, as news broke that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., had pulled out of a keynote speech at the World Meeting of Families which is the official purpose of the pontiff’s visit.
Wuerl withdrew because of the tempest caused by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report questioning his record on handling sexual abuse charges as the bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1990s and 2000s. In that context, the no-show adds additional pressure on Francis to tackle the abuse scandals head on while he’s in a country which, arguably, has been more scarred by them than any other place in the world.
Although it’s not yet been officially confirmed, it’s widely expected that Francis will meet abuse survivors while he’s in Ireland. In light of what’s happened over the last few weeks, which includes not only Wuerl’s withdrawal but also Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s (in his case, due to accusations of sexual impropriety at Boston’s St. John’s Seminary), as well as the scandals surrounding ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the unfolding crisis in Chile, and other unhappy developments, how Francis handles any encounter with survivors takes on a whole new importance.
Beyond the immediate implications, here are three other quick take-aways about Wuerl’s retreat and where things go from here.
First, it’s increasingly clear that there’s no exit strategy for Wuerl short of a full public accounting for his actions in Pittsburgh.
The most controversial case cited in the Grand Jury report is that of abuser priest Father Ernest Paone. Ordained in 1957 and active until 2001, Paone was transferred despite a history of accusations beginning in the early 1960s.
When Paone finally retired in 2001, nearly 41 years after the first accusation of sexual abuse had been brought forward, Wuerl, the report said, wrote a letter assuring the priest that “sustenance needs and benefits will continue according to the norms of law.”
In a statement to Crux on Saturday, a Wuerl spokesman argued that Wuerl cannot be held responsible since Paone was never really under his supervision.
“The priest in question had not resided in the Pittsburgh diocese for almost a quarter century before Cardinal Wuerl arrived,” the statement said. “The diocese did not provide any evidence to then-Bishop Wuerl until 1994, when an individual came forward with a claim against Paone from the time prior to Wuerl’s arrival. Then-Bishop Wuerl moved promptly to notify the other diocese and have him removed from ministry.”
If that’s indeed the case, it may change perceptions of Wuerl’s role, though it still leaves several questions unanswered – among them, how “moving promptly” in 1994 could have left Paone active for another seven years until he retired.
One option for Wuerl would be to call a press conference and promise to stay in place until every question has been asked and answered. Another would be to invite an independent investigation of his record, one that’s neither funded nor controlled by the Church.
However he goes about it, Wuerl could be dogged by suspicions of complicity in a cover-up forever if he doesn’t move, right now, to provide hard evidence supporting an alternative interpretation.
Second, Francis may be hamstrung by O’Malley and Wuerl’s withdrawals from the World Meeting of Families for reasons that have a much longer shelf-life than his 32-hour trip to Ireland.
As far as O’Malley goes, he’s by far the figure at senior levels of the Catholic hierarchy most identified with the reform cause on sexual abuse. Precisely because O’Malley is seen as being on the side of the angels, whenever he defends Francis it affords the pontiff immediate credibility.
Should O’Malley’s reputation or effectiveness be hampered by the scandals at St. John’s, it would create a void for Francis that might not be easy to fill.
As far as Wuerl’s concerned, he’s been a key Francis ally and confidante, especially on the pope’s controversial document Amoris Laetitia, opening a cautious door to Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church. While Wuerl is hardly the only prelate at senior levels who’s backed Francis on that front, he has been among the most outspoken, and Francis could find himself on the market for a replacement depending on how things play out.
Third and finally, the Wuerl case puts an exclamation point on a conclusion about the sexual abuse scandals that should already have been clear: The problem for the Church isn’t really the crime, it’s the cover-up.
Sixteen years since the crisis first erupted in the U.S., almost ten years since that happened in Ireland, and now more than five years since Francis was elected, the Catholic Church still has no credible, transparent process for handling cases when the accusation against a bishop isn’t the direct commission of abuse but rather covering up someone else’s crimes.
Francis has taken tentative steps in that direction, but to date they’ve remained largely a dead letter.
The central lesson of the Wuerl drama may be precisely this: In the absence of a mechanism to pursue these cover-up claims, it’s the worst of both worlds. Bishops who really did drop the ball aren’t held accountable, and those whose reputations have been unjustly smeared have no recourse to defend themselves.
Perhaps it’s premature to expect that Francis’s trip to Ireland in one week’s time will bring definitive answers as to how to build such a system. Yet if the pope simply acknowledges it’s the right question to be asking, that could strike many people here and elsewhere as progress.