On October 12, Pope Francis officially accepted the resignation of Washington's archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, from the high-profile post Wuerl had occupied for 12 years. Wuerl's resignation was the latest and most direct casualty of the sex-abuse scandal that for years has been rocking the Catholic Church. More specifically, Wuerl -- a close ally of Pope Francis -- stepped down as a result of a nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report from 2018, which detailed the extent of the rampant sexual abuse of priests against children and of the systemic cover-up of the crimes.
Cardinal Wuerl was among those accused of covering for abusive priests in the grand jury's exhaustive investigation of Pennsylvania's dioceses, including the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which Wuerl had headed from 1988 to 2006. As a consequence of his role in re-assigning or reinstating priests accused of sexual abuse, Wuerl requested that the Pope accept the resignation he had previously submitted in 2015, at age 75, as is tradition. Although Pope Francis acceptedWuerl's resignation, he nevertheless requested that Wuerl stay on as apostolic administrator of the diocese until a new Archbishop to Washington, D.C. is selected.
It was, however, the Pope's heaping of praise on Wuerl that especially angeredthe victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clerics. In his letter accepting Wuerl's resignation, Francis wrote:
"To our Venerable Brother Card. Donald William Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington,
"On September 21st I received your request that I accept your resignation from the pastoral government of the Archdiocese of Washington.
"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 (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 235), 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 (cf. Matthew 26:31).
"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.
"In this way, you make clear the intent to put God's Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the Church. Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.
"In accepting your resignation, I ask you to remain as Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese until the appointment of your successor.
"Dear brother, I make my own the words of Sirach: "You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost" (2:8). May the Virgin Mary protect you with her mantle and may the strength of the Holy Spirit give you the grace to know how to continue to serve him in this new time that the Lord gives you."
A few months earlier, in July, Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, from the College of Cardinals, after he had been removed from public ministry in June over "credible allegations" of his sexual abuse of a minor nearly five decades ago, when he was a priest in New York.
In August, former Papal Nuncio (ambassador) to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, called upon Pope Francis to resign the Papacy. Viganò justified this demand by claiming that the Pontiff had covered up allegations of sexual-abuse crimes by McCarrick. Viganò also named several high-ranking, pro-Pope Francis officials -- including Wuerl -- whom he accused of abetting a homosexual sub-culture inside the Vatican.
In a September 13 piece in National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty posed two questions about why McCarrick's influence had endured, despite frequent and long-standing allegations of his predatory sexual behavior. The first was: Did Francis spare McCarrick because he sought McCarrick's counsel on how the Vatican should reform the American Episcopate (bishops)? The second was: Does Francis overlook the sins of those prelates he views as allies, such as McCarrick, in order to advance his papal agenda?
If the response to either of those questions is yes, then the Vatican's factional infighting between liberals and conservatives may have reached a critical level. This moment may demand a massive restructuring of church structure to sustain Catholicism's vitality as the moral compass for half of the world's Christians. (Non-Catholic Christians such as Orthodox and Protestant sects comprise the other half of the world's 2.2 billion Christians.)