Pope Francis Accepts Resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl Following Sexual Abuse Scandals

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington who became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.

pope-francis-cardinal-wuerl_getty-NICHOLAS KAMM : Staff
(Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff, Getty)

Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, is the most prominent figure to fall in the scandal after his predecessor, Theodore McCormick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.

A Vatican statement said Friday that Francis had accepted Wuerl's resignation, but named no replacement. Wuerl's office said he had been asked to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.

Instead of making an example of Wuerl, who was named numerous times in a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report accusing church leaders of covering up abuse, Pope Francis held him as a model for the future unity of the Catholic Church, citing his "nobility" and announcing that he would stay on as the archdiocese's caretaker until the appointment of his successor.

The Archdiocese of Washington released a letter from Francis, saying that Wuerl had sufficient evidence to "justify" his actions as a bishop and to "distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes."

"However," the letter continued, "your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you."

In an interview, Wuerl said he would continue to live in Washington and that he expected to keep his positions in Vatican offices, including one that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops.

Wuerl initially downplayed the scandal, insisting on his good record. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the diocese. He had actually turned in his resignation three years ago when he turned 75, which is the typical retirement age for bishops — but Francis kept him on, as popes are privy to doing with able-bodied bishops.

August's grand jury report that detailed rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some abusive priests while he was the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.

Wuerl has not been charged with any wrongdoing but was named numerous times in the grand jury report, which details instances in which he allowed priests accused of misconduct to be reassigned or reinstated.

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Wuerl apologized for the damage inflicted on the victims but also defended himself and his effort to combat clergy abuse.

Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, attended Catholic University and received a doctorate in theology from the University of Saint Thomas in Rome. He joined the priesthood in 1966 and was ordained a bishop in 1986 by Pope John Paul II in 1986. He served briefly as auxiliary bishop in Seattle before going to Pittsburgh.