WASHINGTON — On Aug. 25, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò released an 11-page “testimony” that made specific allegations against a number of high-ranking Church authorities — including Pope Francis — who, he said, had been aware of accusations of misconduct against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick for many years.
Viganò’s testimony, and the attention it has brought to what Pope Francis did or did not know about McCarrick, has shifted media focus dramatically away from the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Until Viganò released his testimony, Cardinal Wuerl was the sitting bishop under the most serious personal scrutiny in connection with McCarrick and other reports of clerical sexual abuse. He has faced calls for his resignation in major newspapers and in D.C. parishes, and there have been demonstrations by local Catholics outside his home and St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
While his record as bishop of Pittsburgh was called into question following the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Wuerl really owes his place at the center of this summer of scandal to his role as McCarrick’s successor in Washington, D.C., where McCarrick was — and is believed still to be — living in retirement.
What Wuerl knew, or may have heard, about McCarrick’s behavior before and after retirement is now seen as a crucial test of his credibility on sexual abuse and episcopal transparency. Thus far, Wuerl’s public statements have said little about what he did know and focused on what he didn’t know about the complex set of rumors, allegations and reports swirling around his predecessor.
As the questions being put to Cardinal Wuerl have become more specific, answers about what he did or did not know have become more precise, and more tightly circumscribed.
When the allegations that McCarrick sexually abused a minor first became public at the end of June, Cardinal Wuerl declared himself “shocked and saddened” in a letter released by the Archdiocese of Washington June 21. In the letter, Wuerl affirmed, after a review of archdiocesan records, that “no claim — credible or otherwise — has been made against Cardinal McCarrick during his time here in Washington.”
When it was confirmed that two of McCarrick’s previous dioceses, Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey, had reached out-of-court settlements with adults who accused McCarrick of sexual assault while they were seminarians or young priests, the Archdiocese of Washington circulated a letter to priests July 25, saying that Cardinal Wuerl had no prior knowledge of these settlements until the accusations against McCarrick were made public in June.
On July 29, Wuerl told WTOP that he had never been approached with allegations of abuse against McCarrick and was even unaware of the widespread rumors of sexual immorality that had apparently been long associated with his predecessor.
In the “testimony” released Aug. 25, Archbishop Viganò claimed that, in 2009 or 2010, Pope Benedict XVI imposed definite restrictions on McCarrick, following a series of complaints of abuse against him. These included, according to Viganò, an injunction to leave the seminary where he was then living and refrain from public speaking and ministry.
Viganò also said that Wuerl was not ignorant that restrictions had been placed upon McCarrick, or of the reasons for them. Viganò wrote: “Obviously, the first to have been informed of the measures taken by Pope Benedict was McCarrick’s successor in the Washington See, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.”
The former apostolic nuncio to the United States called it “unthinkable” that Wuerl would not have been told of the restrictions allegedly imposed upon McCarrick by Benedict at the time and says that he himself had later raised the issue with Wuerl and found that he “didn’t need to go into detail because it was immediately clear that [Wuerl] was fully aware of it.”
Wuerl’s denial of Viganò’s allegation was immediate, coming the same day as the release of the “testimony.” But it was also a narrow denial, especially compared to his previously broad denial of having never even heard “rumors” about McCarrick.
“Cardinal Wuerl did not receive documentation or information from the Holy See specific to Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior or any of the prohibitions on his life and ministry suggested by Archbishop Viganò,” the cardinal’s spokesman, Ed McFadden, told CNA Aug. 25.
“Cardinal Wuerl categorically denies that he was ever provided any information regarding the reasons for Cardinal McCarrick’s exit from the Redemptoris Mater Seminary [where McCarrick lived until 2009],” McFadden said.
Regarding a vocational meeting featuring McCarrick that Wuerl canceled at Viganò’s prompting, CNA was told that “Archbishop Viganò presumed that Wuerl had specific information that Wuerl did not have.”
Wuerl did not deny that restrictions had been imposed on McCarrick by Benedict, or that they were the reason the vocational event was canceled — saying only that he wasn’t told by the Holy See about these restrictions and that he had no specific information about why it had to be canceled.
This is a far more precise and delineated statement than, for example, the cardinal telling WTOP in July that he had not even heard rumors of misconduct by McCarrick, or his writing to the faithful of Washington in June that he was “shocked” by the accusations.
CNA reported this week that Wuerl was informed in the summer of 2017 that McCarrick was being investigated in New York after being accused of sexually abusing a teenager in the 1970s. Through the investigation, McCarrick retained his two seminarian staffers, who served as drivers and personal assistants.
While aware of the investigation into McCarrick’s sexual abuse, Wuerl did not inform Institute of the Incarnate Word formators, or suggest they withdraw the seminarians assigned to him — this was only done in June 2018, when the accusation was made public.
When asked why Cardinal Wuerl did not act immediately to have the seminarians withdrawn once he learned about the investigation into McCarrick in 2017, the Archdiocese of Washington told CNA that Cardinal Wuerl was unaware of the extent to which the seminarians were supporting McCarrick and facilitating his travel, and that the allegation against McCarrick had not yet been deemed “credible.”
While Wuerl’s categorical denial that he was informed of sanctions against McCarrick remains intact, his previous claim to have received no accusations “credible or otherwise” against McCarrick, or even to have heard rumors to that effect, has come under closer scrutiny.
But none of that means that Cardinal Wuerl’s exit from Washington is imminent. In fact, at least some speculate that an immediate removal is less likely now than it was last week.
Only a week ago, many in Rome were talking about the possibility that Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation would be soon accepted, or that he be given a special administrator to help govern the archdiocese after Pope Francis returned from Ireland.
Now, Pope Francis and Cardinal Wuerl face a common denouncer in Archbishop Viganò. Some in Rome speculate that any move by Francis to replace or sideline Wuerl might have to be shelved, lest it look like a tacit concession to Viganò’s accusations.
For the most part, Cardinal Wuerl has been clear he does not intend to stand down and that he wants to play an active part in the upcoming general session of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November, which is expected to deal almost exclusively with the fallout of the recent sex-abuse scandals.
While he is reportedly in Rome this weekend, Cardinal Wuerl has written to the priests of Washington saying he is reflecting on how best he can now serve the Church and that he plans to meet with them Monday, Sept. 3.
Whether he remains the archbishop of Washington, the past few months have seen a man once known for staying above the fray become the face of division in the Church in America.
Cardinal Wuerl’s reputation as a consummate diplomat and a “safe pair of hands” was built around a long career spent doing things by the book. But he seems now unable to justify his actions by arguing that he has kept the law. Wuerl has come to be defined not by things he has done, but by the things he says he didn’t know.