Wuerl Misread the Crisis; Pope Francis Need Not

Published January 17, 2019

The Catholic Thing

Pope Francis clearly understands that there is a crisis of credibility in the American episcopate. It is less clear that he understands why. I don’t mean to suggest that the Holy Father’s not paying attention, still less that he doesn’t care about clerical sexual abuse. Not at all. What I mean is that there are signs that he still doesn’t quite grasp the way in which the dynamic of the abuse crisis has fundamentally changed in the United States over the last seven months.

Judging by his letter to the American bishops on retreat earlier this month, the pope is still operating on the premise that the crisis of credibility in the U.S. is the result of new revelations of (mostly) decades-old abuse, which have re-opened old wounds and made freshly painful the betrayals of the past. Adding to this pain, and hampering the Church’s pastoral response to it, is (in Francis’ view) the disjointed and fractious response of the American bishops – a problem aggravated by the inflammatory missives of Archbishop Viganò.

There’s truth in all this, of course, but it’s also profoundly inadequate. The reopening of old wounds and the discovery of hidden crimes is painful, to be sure. But the outrage in the United States today cannot be understood apart from this elementary fact: Many of the faithful in the United States believe, with good reason, that they have been lied to by their shepherds. And many of the American faithful believe, with good reason, that they are still being lied to right now.

Next to Theodore McCarrick, perhaps no cleric has done more to convince the American Church of this than Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Part of me is sympathetic to Wuerl. Of all the prelates who deserve to be cashiered for mishandling abuse allegations in the 1980s and 1990s, Wuerl is nowhere near the top of the list. By all accounts, he was a by-the-book manager. His record of handling abuse in Pittsburgh, while not exemplary, was ahead of the curve. And while there are some cases he clearly handled badly, the overall pattern of his time in Pittsburgh was one of making the right call even in tough cases. Who can blame him for not wanting to be the scapegoat?

But what Cardinal Wuerl still doesn’t seem to understand is that, far more than his spotty record in Pittsburgh, it has been his inexcusable lack of candor about what he knew about McCarrick – and when – that have cost him the confidence of his priests and his flock. It’s hard to heal old wounds when you’re still inflicting new ones.

And this brings us back to how Pope Francis understands the crisis in the American Church. The Holy Father seems to share Wuerl’s (mistaken) view of just what went wrong. Accordingly, he also sees Wuerl as a sort of martyr, nobly laying down his life – or at least his career– for his flock. When the Holy Father finally (begrudgingly) accepted Wuerl’s resignation last fall, he took the unusual step of writing a letter in praise of Wuerl. In that letter, Francis wrote:

I recognize in your request [to resign] the heart of the shepherd who, by widening his vision to recognize a greater good that can benefit the whole body, prioritizes actions that support, stimulate and make the unity and mission of the Church grow above every kind of sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed.

You have sufficient elements to “justify” your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.

If Wuerl were resigning his post in Washington because of his failures in Pittsburgh, these words would make more sense. If the McCarrick allegations had never come to light, Wuerl’s response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report – the now infamous, short-lived website defending his record in Pittsburgh – would have made more sense, too. But what good are reassurances about how abuse was handled twenty years ago if there is a desperate lack of honesty about what’s going on right now? It’s as though Wuerl keeps trying to offer the right response to the wrong crisis.

Unfortunately, that’s a misstep Pope Francis has been leaning toward as well. He risks underestimating the degree to which the McCarrick affair has fundamentally altered the nature of the crisis here in the States. The questions raised by the McCarrick affair mean that the college of bishops and Rome itself are implicated in an unprecedented way: Who knew what about McCarrick and when? Who pushed for his promotion? Who in Rome protected him? Who turned a blind eye? Who gained by his promotion and influence?

Answering these questions will require digging back into the pontificates of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. They are also questions that are inextricably linked to this pontificate and the Viganò testimony (though they were being asked long before that.) Be that as it may, and for as much acrimony as the Viganò testimony has caused, the deeper problem is not fractious bishops, as Francis repeatedly suggested in his letter to the bishops’ retreat. Greater comity among the bishops won’t help much of anything if they continue to misunderstand the nature and causes for the gulf that stands between them and the ones they are bound to serve.

And in this there is an opportunity for Pope Francis: he can learn from Cardinal Wuerl’s terrible misreading of the crisis before he repeats it. The pope has promised a full investigation into McCarrick: “We will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.” Let’s pray this happens and that the Holy Father does what our bishops were too scared to ask him to do: release the findings in full.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.


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