Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, a longtime advocate for victims of pedophile priests, took aim this week at a recent U.N. commission report on the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal, saying it failed to recognize the progress the church has made in the past decade.
“It stopped its study 10 years ago, so it made no mention of all the extraordinary steps the Catholic Church has taken in the past 10 years to see that these things don’t happen,” Cardinal Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child during an exclusive interview with The Washington Times.
“It made no reference at all to the fact that there’s no other institution, including our public schools, that goes through what the Catholic Church now does to ensure that children are not abused, or that if someone is abused, that is reported and that [abuser] removed,” he told The Times.
In the wide-ranging interview at his office, the avuncular Cardinal Wuerl discussed the sex abuse scandal and other challenges facing the church, the widespread popularity and influence of Pope Francis, and the upcoming canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II as well as his own spiritual journey that has posited him in the leadership of the archdiocese as it enters its 75th year.
The U.N. committee last week issued a scathing report advising the Vatican to remove all known and suspected child abusers and report them to law enforcement, set up rules for reporting cases of abuse, and to change canon law so that abuse is considered a crime and not merely an immoral act.
It also urged the church to consider changing canon law to recognize same-sex families, to not condemn abortion as a sin in certain circumstances, and to reconsider its teachings on premarital sex and contraception.
The report piqued many Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl among them, who said the U.N. panel overstepped its boundaries.
The commission seemed “very upset about the church’s teaching on abortion, as if the way to avoid child abuse is abort children,” he said. “Where is the logic to something like that? And besides that, that’s not the issue that that commission was supposed to be looking at.”
Nonetheless, the Catholic Church is looking forward, the 73-year-old cardinal said, noting a focus on marriage and family this year and an upcoming synod in Rome, where church leaders will discuss how to strengthen both.
“What we’re recognizing now is a diminished appreciation for the idea of marriage, which is so important to bring stability to children,” he said. “Children need to have a home. I don’t mean a physical four walls and a room. There needs to be an emotional and spiritual and loving place in life. That’s what a family is.”
‘For lack of sharing’
Cardinal Wuerl’s easygoing manner belies his prestige in having a hand in choosing the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and having written a small library’s worth of books.
Although the man formerly known as the “teaching bishop” is quick with a smile or dry humor, he is focused on what is shaping up to be an important year for the Catholic Church.
“For the church universal, 2014 marks the first anniversary of [Pope] Francis,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “I don’t think anybody could have foretold what his impact would be. And this is the year of the canonization of John XXIII … and John Paul II.”
Since his election, Francis has gained popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, thanks to his unconventional stories — he worked as a nightclub bouncer in Buenos Aires — his concern for the poor and afflicted, and his remarks on issues such as same-sex marriage.
“I can say with total conviction that it was the Holy Spirit that chose, guided the election of Pope Francis,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “You go into the conclave, there are no nominations, no candidates, no speeches, no talking. You simply pray and vote, and out of that came this extraordinary pope.”
Shortly after Francis’ anniversary, one of the church’s highest honors — sainthood — is being bestowed on John XXIII and John Paul II.
John XXIII was elected pope in October 1958, and he convened the Second Vatican Council. He died in 1963 and was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II.
“He was only pope for five years, but what an extraordinary person,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “He came in and said, ‘We need a council. We need to update the way the church functions.’”
The Second Vatican Council established the church’s constitution, increased the status of bishops and allowed the liturgy to be celebrated in vernacular languages, instead of the traditional Latin, to improve understanding among the laity.
John Paul was elected in 1978 and died in 2005. He was beatified in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, who waived the traditional five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.
“For almost 27 years he dominated the world’s stage religiously, spiritually, pastorally,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “I think the reason we have so many young men in the seminary now, so many young people reassessing their relationship to the church, is the foundation he laid. I knew him before he was pope. He not only named me a bishop, he ordained me a bishop. I’ll always have a special tie to John Paul II.”
Along with major events for the year, the church as a whole is focusing on how to “live the Gospel,” the cardinal said.
While caring for the poor has always been a priority for the church, perhaps now more than ever is the reality of extreme inequality of resources.
“Around the world, more than half of the people on this planet struggle each day just to find enough food to live that day,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “It’s not for lack of food. It’s for lack of distribution. It’s for lack of sharing.”
The U.S. poverty level is an entirely different standard than those of other nations, he said.
“We need to be aware of our brothers and sisters who have so much less,” he said. “This is part of the message of the church: We are all brothers and sisters. Our God who created all of us is the God who calls all of us to care for one another. I think that’s going to be one of the big, big challenges of the future, helping refocus on the needs of others.”
Long road to Washington
Family is one of the factors that led the young Wuerl to pursue a life dedicated to the church.
Cardinal Wuerl grew up in Mount Washington, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where there were more Catholic schools than public schools.
“I grew up in a family, it was just assumed you did all these things,” he said. “You were part of a parish life. It was a great community to grow up in. I just was impressed by our parish priests. After a while, I began to think maybe I could do that.”
After graduating from high school, he attended the college division of the Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati. Two years later, he went to Catholic University of America.
“My few years here studying at Catholic University introduced me to this city,” he said. “I had more time then than I have now to do things like go to the galleries, go to the museums.”
The cardinal’s education led him to the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He received a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
He was ordained a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica and ordained a bishop by John Paul.
Cardinal Wuerl served as auxiliary bishop in Seattle until 1987 and then as bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years until he moved to the District in 2006.
Today, Cardinal Wuerl leads more than 620,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, including some 27,000 Catholic school students, and a charitable arm that last year helped 100,000 people in the archdiocese.
Part of the celebration of the church’s 75th anniversary July 22 will be a synod.
“We’ve invited some 200 people, leadership from around archdiocese, laywomen, laymen, deacons, priests, to begin to sort through [more than 15,0000] observations, recommendations, comments that we solicited from the entire archdiocese,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “That’ll give us guidance, I hope, for the next 75 years.”