In an expected but still momentous announcement, Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Wuerl has been under intense scrutiny over his handling of sexual abuse allegations during his time as Bishop of Pittsburgh and later as Archbishop of Washington.
All bishops, as a way of retiring, are required to submit their resignations to the pope when they turn 75, but the pope can defer accepting them until he decides the time is right. In Wuerl’s case, he has remained in his position as the archbishop of a major diocese since submitting his resignation in 2015.
As the scandal surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — a powerful member of the church hierarchy and confidant of Pope Francis who was a known sexual predator in positions of power for years — grew over the summer, so did scrutiny over Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick as Washington’s archbishop.
A Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting over 300 abuse cases repeatedly pointed a finger at Wuerl for declining to punish priests accused of abuse while he was bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2006. And in a bombshell letter released in August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States who was removed over disagreements with Pope Francis, said Wuerl knew about McCarrick’s pattern of misconduct but did nothing.
As the spotlight on Wuerl grew over the summer, the Archdiocese of Washington hired a crisis management PR firm. They published a website called WuerlRecord.com seeking to defend his actions. However, after heated criticism from all corners for the tone-deaf response, the archdiocese took down the website. An upcoming release of a book by Wuerl was also postponed indefinitely, and several of his planned public appearances were canceled. Wuerl announced in September in a letter to diocesan priests that he would go to Rome to discuss his resignation with Pope Francis.
Speculation about new bishops or cardinals does not work quite like political speculation over a Supreme Court nominee or Cabinet pick, because a successor could be anyone from a bishop from another diocese who gets transferred, or an ordinary parish priest. Catholic News Agency has published a list of possibilities, most of them considered to match the politically progressive tendencies of Francis. Another possible successor is Fr. Paul Scalia, son of the late Antonin Scalia, who currently serves in the neighboring Diocese of Arlington, Va. Scalia would be an outsider, since he has no experience within the ranks of the separately organized Archdiocese of Washington, but he is a familiar face for his proximity. However, Francis seems unlikely to choose a theologically orthodox candidate like Scalia.
There is no definitive timeline for choosing a successor, nor is there one for the healing process after decades of corruption. But for Catholics in Washington and across the United States, Wuerl’s resignation is a critical first step.
Photo credit: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0