Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Donald Wuerl as the Archbishop of Washington, as the cardinal had requested — but kept him on as administrator of the archdiocese in the nation's capital.
The pope didn't name a successor archbishop or indicate when he would. The arrangement softens the impact of Wuerl's resignation, which he pressed Francis to accept as a healing gesture.
Wuerl, 77, had come under fierce criticism after an Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury assailed the image of the former Pittsburgh bishop as one of the Roman Catholic Church's earliest advocates for child sexual-abuse reform.
Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, had disputed some of the report's findings.
But he was already facing questions over what he knew and when about allegations involving his predecessor in Washington — former cardinal Theodore McCarrick — before other dioceses publicly acknowledged in June they had settled past claims of sexual misconduct against him.
In a letter to Wuerl released Friday, Francis assured the former that he could have defended his work as bishop of Pittsburgh and said there was a difference between a cover-up of sexual abuse and "mistakes."
"I recognize in your request 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," Francis wrote.
"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," Francis said. "However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you."
But the lead investigator in the grand jury probe, Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye, tweeted this comment on the pope's characterization:
"Well-documented, systemic, systematic, calculated, callous, insidious 'mistakes.' "
And Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a Friday news conference: "I think it is unacceptable that then-Bishop Wuerl, now Cardinal Wuerl, oversaw and participated in the systematic cover-up in the Pittsburgh diocese. And that he is now able to retire, seemingly with no consequences for his actions that were documented, not only in the grand jury, but in the church's own secret archives."
Shapiro continued: "We can't rely on the church to fix itself," suggesting that the pope's statement was "directly contradicted by the church's own records."
Although Wuerl's new position as "apostolic administrator" is defined as a caretaker role until a successor is named, it keeps Wuerl in place for the foreseeable future, and he also retains influential positions on Vatican bodies.
Typically, a bishop's resignation isn't accepted until his successor is named, and he might remain as administrator between then and the new bishop's formal installation. That happened with Wuerl's two predecessors in Washington.
But to resign and stay as administrator with no new bishop in the wings is more unusual.
Judy Jones, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement:
"Voluntarily stepping down doesn't seem to work to deter bishops from enabling and covering up child sex crimes. He should have been fired and demoted. "
She called for grand jury investigations and statute-of-limitations reforms in every state.
Statements issued through the Archdiocese of Washington reflected a mix of conciliation and defiance.
"The Holy Father's decision to provide new leadership to the Archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future," Wuerl said in a statement. "… Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon."
But archdiocesan Chancellor Kim Viti Fiorentino called Wuerl a pioneer in promoting child safety in the church, accomplishments overshadowed by what she called the grand jury report's "flaws and its interpretation by media."
She added: "Although he would have been justified to move forward with challenging many of the assertions that have been lodged against him, Cardinal Wuerl decided to forgo his personal interest out of love for the people entrusted to his care."
In an interview published online today by America, a Jesuit magazine, Wuerl said of Francis' naming of him as apostolic administrator: "I certainly appreciate the vote of confidence that it represents."
He acknowledged mistakes in handling allegations against abusive priests in Pittsburgh before the 2002 adoption of a zero-tolerance policy by bishops nationwide.
"Some of those errors in judgment were based on professional psychological evaluations, some of the errors were based on moving too slowly as we tried to find some verification of the allegations. Those were all judgmental errors, and I certainly regret them," he said.
He indicated that he made errors in taking too long to substantiate allegations.
"Then we were required to have some modicum of proof before moving out the person," he said, whereas today a priest is placed on leave immediately after there is an allegation, pending investigation.
Wuerl had offered his resignation in November 2015 upon turning 75, as required of all diocesan bishops under church law, but popes often keep cardinals in their posts until age 80. Only with this summer's controversies did Wuerl press the pontiff to accept his offer immediately.
Wuerl will remain in the College of Cardinals, meaning that until he reaches the age of 80 in November 2020, he can vote in any conclave to choose a new pope, should such an event arise. After age 80 the title is mainly an honorific.
He also remains a member of the influential Congregation for Bishops, a Vatican body that recommends bishop appointees. Francis named him to the post in 2013.
Wuerl also has been a respected leader in the American church and in the nation's capital. The Archdiocese of Washington, which also includes Maryland suburbs, features a growing, multicultural collection of parishes at the seat of national power, where Wuerl attended White House meetings and presided at Masses attended by senators and Supreme Court justices.
The Pittsburgh-born Wuerl also retained strong connections to his hometown, returning for major events such as last year's funeral of former Steelers owner Dan Rooney.
But it was Wuerl's hometown ties that also drew him into controversy this summer with the grand jury's scrutiny of his time as bishop.
Until now, Wuerl was best known as an early reformer amid the crisis of sexual abuse by priests, meeting with victims' families, fighting a Vatican order to reinstate an abusive cleric, and prompting bishops to adopt a nationwide zero-tolerance policy toward abusers in 2002.
But the grand jury said Wuerl allowed a priest to remain in ministry despite multiple allegations of abuse. It said he presided over a settlement that required victims' public silence about their abuse. It tried to link him to a phrase suggesting a conspiracy of silence. Both Wuerl and the Diocese of Pittsburgh disputed portions of the report, arguing that they are inaccurate or lack the proper context.
After the report was released, critics successfully petitioned to have the cardinal's name removed from Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry.
Pittsbrugh Bishop David Zubik, who was also named in the grand jury report, responded to the announcement Friday, saying that Wuerl had offered to step down for the good of the families affected and the good of the church. "For as long as I have known Cardinal Wuerl, he has advocated for those within the church and beyond who need the opportunity for a better life. I pray that the acceptance of his resignation today by Pope Francis will continue to bring about healing in the hearts and lives of victims of abuse and all those in the Church."
Wuerl defended his record in his official reply to the grand jury, saying that from the start of his term as Pittsburgh bishop, he warned priests that abuse of children would lead to their removal from ministry.
But since the report came out, Wuerl also apologized for "errors of judgment" and "inadequacies" — which he did not enumerate — and has asked parishioners in Washington to pray for him.
He wrote Sept. 13 in his blog:
"For my shortcomings of the past and of the present I take full responsibility and wish that I could wipe away all the pain, confusion, and disillusionment that people feel, and I wish that I could redo some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and each time get it right."
Wuerl denied knowing before this summer of allegations that his predecessor, Archbishop McCarrick, had sexually exploited young adult seminarians in past decades. The allegations became public only after McCarrick was banned from ministry this summer and resigned as a cardinal after church officials announced a credible claim he had abused a minor.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican envoy to the United States, further roiled controversy by claiming without evidence that both Wuerl and Francis knew of and kept silent on some such claims for years.
Wuerl's last major appearance as archbishop in Washington occurred Sept. 14, when he led a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew to begin a "season of healing."
As parishioners arrived at the cathedral for midday Mass Friday, the fifth in the healing series, many said they were unaware of the change, or were confused about what it meant and wanted more information.
The worshipers prayed for a cure to the "affliction of sexual abuse" in the church.