Washington's Catholics confront the tumultuous end of Donald Wuerl's reign as archbishop


Catholic teachers protested in late August outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Northeast Washington, demanding Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation. Wuerl stepped down Friday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

They stood outside Washington’s grandest Catholic churches, shouting and singing and praying while holding posters demanding that the archbishop of Washington resign from his job as an admission of decades-old failures to respond adequately to child sexual abuse in the church.

Early Friday morning, when the resignation they had hoped for was announced, these faithful Catholic activists weren’t sure how to feel.

[Pope Francis accepts Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation]

“It’s a really good thing. It’s a good thing,” said Winnie Obike, who created a petition that drew thousands of signatures asking Cardinal Donald Wuerl to step down because of his mishandling of abusive priests under his supervision. But the problem, she said, is so much bigger: “this East Coast Catholic culture, which is morally corrupt and needs saving.”

Bob Cooke, who organized demonstrations including one outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, agreed: “It’s the whole system, the clericalism in the church, that needs to be changed. … I’m afraid the future is going to look more like the past.”

Washington’s Catholics are debating what that future should look like in their archdiocese, even as some continue to ask whether it was right to condemn Wuerl for his handling of sexual abuse by priests.

[Wuerl’s handling of abuse imperils his legacy]

Cooke, a fan of Pope Francis’s despite his deep concerns about how the church handles abusive priests, called for major changes in church governance as the next step, especially the inclusion of women in leadership decisions that are currently made entirely by male priests. He said he would like to see a liberal Francis acolyte, such as Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, as the next archbishop of Washington.

Obike, a conservative Catholic and a Republican candidate for the Maryland state legislature, has a different take on what is needed in Washington, where the two most recent cardinals have resigned their positions in a period of just four months because of charges related to sexual abuse by priests. “There has to be someone out there who’s not a part of the McCarrick-Wuerl regime,” she said. “Anyone who’s connected to this Pope Francis regime. Frankly, it’s liberals. It’s a liberal elitist strain of what it means to be Catholic.”

The abuse crisis that exploded this summer shook up all prior speculation about who would eventually replace Wuerl, 77, who was expected to retire in the next several years. Francis did not name a replacement Friday, instead leaving Wuerl in charge of administration of the archdiocese until the pope picks a successor.

Before June, men often named as contenders included San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, Minneapolis and St. Paul Archbishop Bernard Hebda (who was a personal secretary to Wuerl in Pittsburgh) and Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. All are in the mold of Wuerl, seen as moderates in U.S. Catholic culture wars.

But now, Francis must look for a bishop who can steward the archdiocese to healing from the recent revelations — about both ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged abuse of minors and harassment of seminarians and priests, and Wuerl’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases as was exposed in a massive Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Rocco Palmo, a longtime chronicler of the machinations of the U.S. church hierarchy, predicted Friday that Francis won’t name a successor for Wuerl for months. “It’s far too early to go into names. The state of the archdiocese has been upended since June.”

Washington’s Catholic community has grown significantly under Wuerl’s watch, especially in predominantly Latino and Asian parishes, while in most of the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, church membership is going dramatically in the other direction. “Beyond the imminent need for healing, they need someone who can oversee and marshal that extraordinary growth,” Palmo said.

Michael Sean Winters, a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, said that Francis will look for a bishop with the intellect to oversee a diocese with numerous Catholic schools, including the Catholic University of America and Georgetown University. The new bishop will also need the political chops to interact with President Trump’s White House, where Wuerl — who was in frequent contact with previous administrations — has sometimes appeared to be shut out by an administration that seems to consult evangelicals almost exclusively when seeking religious input.

“Having somebody who’s learned about American politics would be a really wise choice,” Winters said.

Winters, who lives in the archdiocese and feels Wuerl was unfairly pushed out, played down the size of the groundswell in the archdiocese for the cardinal’s resignation, although petitions racked up thousands of signatures and prominent local Catholics called for Wuerl to step down. He accused right-wing Catholic websites of beginning a protest movement against Wuerl and other liberal leaders in the church. “All of a sudden we’re in Salem, and spectral evidence is enough,” he said, referring to the witch trials in Salem in colonial Massachusetts.

But at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the ornate blue-domed church in Northeast Washington that has been the site of some of the demonstrations against Wuerl, faithful Mass attendees entering the noon service Friday almost unanimously said they thought Wuerl’s resignation was the right response to the scandal.

“I think doing it now is a good step forward,” said Bonnie Finnerty, 50, a mother of five who attends Mass about three times a week and was just leaving her morning philosophy class at the John Paul II Institute. “The pope is signaling an acceptance that people need some closure.”

Catherine Pakaluk, a Catholic University professor, said that Wuerl’s resignation “gives us a chance to move forward with fresh spirit.”

“It certainly indicates that Rome has woken up to the fact that the matters confronting the American church need to be addressed,” she said.

Others said they were pleased Wuerl was leaving his position but wished Francis had shown more outrage about sexual abuse, instead of praising Wuerl on his way out. The pope wrote a letter acclaiming Wuerl’s “nobility” for resigning and saying that Wuerl’s actions in Pittsburgh were justifiable mistakes instead of coverups of crime.

Among those wishing for stronger words from Francis was Nicole McCarthy, who pushed her daughter in a stroller into the Basilica on Friday to obtain a blessing on her first birthday. “I always grew up close to the church,” she said. “So for me, to see the church as not a place we can trust, it tears me apart.”

Even a former employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, John Carr, who runs a center at Georgetown University and describes Wuerl as a friend and mentor, said Wuerl’s resignation was important. “This is a sad but necessary action for the good of the church,” he said. “Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of one of his most important collaborators.”

Now, Washingtonians await the news of a new bishop to take the helm of a storm-tossed archdiocese. Even in retirement, Wuerl may play a major role in that choice: Pope Francis allowed him to keep his position in the Congregation for Bishops, the powerful committee that selects new church leaders.

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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