Catholics are angry at revelations of priestly sexual abuse, and they have a right to be. But when emotion conquers reason, the truth is often lost. The fact of the matter is that in almost all cases, the accused priest is either dead or is no longer in ministry. Moreover, virtually none of them were afforded the opportunity to defend himself.
Worse, this heated environment has now led to a series of attacks of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as the Bishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006, and is now the Archbishop of Washington. He is being unfairly trashed in some quarters.
I have known Cardinal Wuerl for 30 years, having first met him when I was a professor at a local Pittsburgh Catholic college, La Roche. I had the opportunity to assess his record during his first five years of service: it was meritorious, and it has only gotten better.
It is being said that Cardinal Wuerl must have known all about what Cardinal Theodore McCarrick allegedly did because he was Wuerl's predecessor in Washington. Aside from rumors, which are a staple in every workplace, Wuerl was in no position to know anything about McCarrick's alleged sexual behavior with seminarians, and he certainly was in no position to know anything about more recent allegations involving minors.
Consider the timeline of McCarrick's predatory behavior with seminarians, which allegedly took place in the 1980s down the Jersey Shore.
When McCarrick was installed as Bishop of Metuchen in 1982, Wuerl was executive secretary to Bishop John Marshall of Burlington, Vermont. When McCarrick became Archbishop of Newark in 1986, Wuerl was an Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle. In 1988, Wuerl became Bishop of Pittsburgh, and in 2006 he took over as the Archbishop of Washington.
In short, Wuerl was in Burlington, Seattle, and Pittsburgh when McCarrick was allegedly preying on seminarians in his home in Sea Girt, New Jersey. To hold him accountable for McCarrick's deeds is absurd and patently unfair. Moreover, he had nothing to do with financial settlements arranged by the Diocese of Metuchen (2005) and the Archdiocese of Newark (2007).
What we do know about Wuerl is that he distinguished himself early on by confronting priestly sexual abuse.
When Wuerl became Bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988, he learned of a few cases of molestation involving minors. Against the advice of attorneys, he met with the victims and their families. A few months later, he removed Father Anthony Cipolla from ministry.
Cipolla maintained his innocence, but Wuerl was convinced he had mental problems, and notified the Vatican about it in 1989. Wuerl told the Congregation for Clergy that "it would be morally impossible to assign Father Cipolla, who is in need of serious psychological treatment, to the pastoral care of the faithful in the Church."
Cipolla appealed to the Congregation for Clergy, but it sided with Wuerl.
In 1991, Cipolla appealed to the Vatican Signatura, the Catholic Church's Supreme Court. In 1993, the high court overruled Wuerl, ordering him to reinstate Cipolla. Wuerl said no — he would not return him to ministry. Wuerl argued that there were "inaccuracies" in the Signatura's decision and asked the Vatican to reopen the case.
In 1995, the Vatican reversed itself, agreed with Wuerl's assessment, and Cipolla was officially barred from public ministry.
Who, in or out of the Catholic Church, has ever defied his superiors, risking his position within the company or institution, over such matters? Wuerl did. How many in Hollywood and the media have?
In 1989, the year after Wuerl's first encounter with sexual abuse as a bishop, he launched a Diocesan Review Board. At that time, the bishops had no institutionalized mechanism for assessing sexual offenses—the bishops' conference never had one until 2004—putting him way ahead of the curve.
In 2006, the liberal-leaning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted how effective Wuerl was when he was Bishop of Pittsburgh (he had just been appointed Archbishop of Washington). "When other dioceses around the nation were mired in an ugly abuse scandal involving priests who preyed on younger church members, Pittsburgh was unscathed."
These plaudits, of course, were prior to the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The report does raise some questions about Wuerl's handling of a few cases, but even there it is easy to understand his decisions.
At that time, the bishops — like the leaders in all institutions, private and public — followed the advice of psychologists and psychiatrists and returned offenders to their job after receiving a clean bill of health. We now know that these therapists oversold their level of competence, and many still do.
Like everyone, Wuerl must be judged on the basis of his overall record, and in his case it is outstanding. In his 18 years as the Bishop of Pittsburgh, he fielded 19 new cases of accusations against priests. In 18 of those cases, the priest was immediately removed from ministry. That is impressive, by any standard.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is a good man who deserves our commendation, not condemnation.
Dr. William Donohue is the president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The publisher of the Catholic League journal, Catalyst, Donohue is a former Bradley Resident Scholar at the Heritage Foundation and served for two decades on the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars. He is the author of seven books, and the winner of several teaching awards and many awards from the Catholic community. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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