Wuerl, the Flesh & the Devil
NEW OXFORD NOTEBOOK
By Pieter Vree |
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.
Donald’s dissembling was his downfall.
Archbishop of Washington, D.C., from 2006 to 2018, Donald Cardinal Wuerl succeeded the now-notorious serial molester Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, a onetime high roller in the Church, as titular head of the nation’s most prominent see. Before that, Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. By coincidence — or not! — both Washington and Pittsburgh have become flashpoints in the resurgent sex-abuse crisis.
To say that Wuerl is complicit in the cover-up of McCarrick’s crimes would be an understatement. To say he has a record of stretching the truth would be insufficient. It would be more accurate to say that Wuerl is “completely compromised” and he “lies shamelessly,” as the much-maligned Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò put it in his “testimony” (Aug. 22). Heck, Wuerl could have been whom Al Franken had in mind when he wrote Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.
Why? This past July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the publication of the results of its two-year investigation of clerical sexual abuse in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh. Known as the “Pennsylvania grand jury report,” it mentions Wuerl more than 200 times, describing him as one of the bishops who helped cover up the abuse of possibly thousands of children in the state. The report even says Wuerl coined a phrase to describe the cover-up: “circle of secrecy.”
One particularly horrific case in Pittsburgh involved a ring of pedophile priests who produced child pornography on parish property and used “whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.” One of the priests, Fr. George Zirwas, was the subject of numerous complaints involving underage boys between 1987 and 1995. In December 1988 he was sent to a mental hospital, but upon release was reassigned to parish work. In 1994 he was placed on a leave of absence but “was returned to ministry by Bishop Donald Wuerl.” Months later, in response to yet another complaint, Zirwas was again placed on leave, after which he moved to Miami. In 1996 he told the Pittsburgh diocese he knew of other priests’ sexual activity, and he “demanded that his sustenance payments be increased” in exchange for the information. Wuerl told him that to get an increase, he must either provide the names of the priests or “state that he had no knowledge of what he had previously claimed.” Zirwas chose the latter course, and he “was granted an additional financial stipend and his sustenance payments were continued,” the report states. In other words, Wuerl paid him to shut up and stay away. (Zirwas later fled to Havana, became involved in the local “gay” scene, and was murdered in 2001.)
Maybe Wuerl figured that nobody would bother to read the report — it’s 1,356-pages long, after all. Whatever the reason, he had the temerity to claim that it “confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro responded that many of Wuerl’s statements regarding the grand jury report “are directly contradicted by the Church’s own documents and records from their Secret Archives.” Wuerl, he said, is simply “not telling the truth.”
But we don’t have to Shapiro’s or Viganò’s word for it. Wuerl’s own words accuse him.
Last year, when it was announced that McCarrick had been accused of sexually abusing a minor while he was a priest in New York, Wuerl claimed in a public statement (June 21, 2018) that he was “shocked.” He went on to say that a review of archdiocesan records indicated that “no claim — credible or otherwise — has been made against Cardinal McCarrick during his time here in Washington.”
A month later, after it became public knowledge that two of the dioceses where McCarrick served as bishop, Metuchen and Newark, had reached out-of-court settlements with seminarians who had accused him of sexual assault, Wuerl claimed he had no prior knowledge of these settlements. Incredibly, in an interview with the D.C. archdiocesan newspaper (July 31, 2018), he said he was unaware even of any rumors of homosexual mischief that had long dogged his predecessor, rumors that were widespread even among ecclesial outsiders. Everybody knew, but nobody was willing to go public — until The New York Times published a series of exposés.
Wuerl knew too, and he did nothing to stop McCarrick’s abuse of power and people. As Ed Condon and J.D. Flynn of Catholic News Agency reported (Jan. 10, 2019), “A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington confirmed to CNA that an allegation against McCarrick was presented to Wuerl while he served as Bishop of Pittsburgh” — in 2004 — yes, during McCarrick’s time in D.C. (he retired in 2006).
Pants on fire!
The Pittsburgh diocese corroborated this in a statement, revealing that Wuerl had reported the allegation, which involved a seminarian in his early 20s, to Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, then-apostolic nuncio to the U.S. and Viganò’s predecessor. The seminarian, Robert Ciolek, received an $80,000 settlement in 2005.
Consider this further vindication of Viganò. As he wrote in his testimony, Pope Benedict XVI imposed canonical restrictions on McCarrick following a series of complaints against him. “Obviously,” Viganò wrote, “the first to have been informed of the measures taken by Pope Benedict was McCarrick’s successor in the Washington See, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.” It is “unthinkable,” Viganò said, that Wuerl would not have been told of the restrictions. Moreover, Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the U.S. from 2011 to 2016, said he himself had 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.”
Of course, Wuerl tried to worm his way out of the hole he had dug for himself. Like a true denizen of D.C., he denied that his earlier denials were indeed denials. Instead, he said the sordid episode had simply slipped his mind! “When I was asked if I had any previous knowledge of allegations against Archbishop McCarrick, I said I did not,” Wuerl wrote in a letter to his priests (Jan. 12). “Only afterwards was I reminded of the 14-year-old accusation of inappropriate conduct which, by that time, I had forgotten.”
That’s absurd. As Ciolek told CNA (Jan. 16), “It’s unfathomable to me that he has forgotten; I don’t believe it for one second.” Wuerl, Ciolek said, “is not being honest. He knew, he knew.”
Hanging from a telephone wire!
The burning question is why Wuerl was in a position to make a fool of himself in so public a manner. He had tendered his resignation to Pope Francis last October. According to Condon (CNA, Jan. 19), “Francis seemed to accept Wuerl’s resignation as archbishop with reluctance, and he heaped praise on the cardinal while he did so.” In fact, Francis was so reluctant to see Wuerl go that he asked him to remain in charge of the archdiocese as apostolic administrator, essentially acting as a placeholder until Francis named his successor. In his reply to Wuerl’s resignation, Francis called him a “model bishop.” He elaborated: “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.”
“That praise,” Condon says, “now looks, to many Catholics, to have been seriously misplaced.”
Francis’s favoritism came to the fore once more at the U.S. bishops’ meeting last November. In light of l’affaire McCarrick, conference president Daniel Cardinal DiNardo was prepared to announce a new policy for handling abuse allegations against bishops. But the Pope pushed DiNardo aside in favor of Wuerl and his buddy, Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago. The two had worked together on an alternative plan for weeks and presented it to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops prior to the U.S. bishops’ assembly. According to Condon (Nov. 16), “The conference’s proposed plan would have established an independent lay-led commission to investigate allegations against bishops. The Cupich-Wuerl plan would instead send allegations against bishops to be investigated by their metropolitan archbishops, along with archdiocesan review boards. Metropolitans themselves would be investigated by their senior suffragan bishops.”
Bishops investigating bishops? This is the type of insular thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. What is this other than the institutionalization of Wuerl’s “circle of secrecy”?
The whole Wuerl saga goes to show — yet again — that many of the leaders of the Church, the men who are running the show, aren’t so much interested in professing the truth as they are in protecting their prestige and preserving their power. Their obstinate and remorseless self-interest does damage to the witness of the Church and undermines the Gospel of Christ.
Of course, where the sex scandal is concerned, the buck stops at the top, with Pope Francis. What can we expect from him? Not much, says Msgr. Charles Pope. Writing at the National Catholic Register (Nov. 16), Msgr. Pope, a priest of the Washington archdiocese, observed that “Francis, who was himself tasked by the last conclave with rooting out abuse and corruption, has tended to surround himself with men who are at the very heart of the scandals rocking the Church throughout the world.” For this reason, Msgr. Pope says, “I am not confident that we will see anything close to a full inquiry or a clear adjudication of this matter in Rome. Too many there are implicated and compromised to be able to carry out a clear and forceful investigation. The testimonies of Archbishop Viganò have substantially withstood scrutiny: former Cardinal McCarrick’s misdeeds were known and ignored.”
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ when first we practice to deceive!” — Sir Walter Scott