Pope Francis condemned priest sexual abuse, denounced the church’s past response as inadequate and said solutions must involve “all the members of God’s People” in a rare letter Monday to Catholics worldwide.
Besides a call to prayer and fasting from an increasingly restive laity now more forthright about wanting non-clergy oversight of the clergy, the pope was vague about what “God’s people” should do and his three-page letter did not order any specific short-term measures.
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner,” Francis wrote in a lengthy reaction to last week’s grand jury report in Pennsylvania on the mishandling of sex abuse charges by six of the state’s dioceses.
“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington who was accused in the report of working to cover up the abuses while bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, held a meeting with his priests Monday on the grand jury report and recent revelations of decades of serial sexual misconduct by his predecessor in the Washington archdiocese, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick.
But neither Cardinal Wuerl nor the archdiocese gave any indication that the resignation many are demanding was imminent. An Archdiocese of Washington representative told reporters that the meeting of his Priests Council in suburban Chillum, Maryland, was a “good conversation,” but said little else.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt lamented Monday afternoon that “it’s past 3 p.m. in D.C., 9 p.m. in Rome, and Donald Wuerl is still the archbishop of the former and member in good standing in the College of the Cardinals in the latter, telegraphing contempt for pew Catholics, Catholic scholars, ‘lesser bishops,’ American law and Catholic dogma.”
“The longer Wuerl delays in departing into seclusion and penance, the greater the damage he does to [the pope], the World Conference of Families, ‘his’ diocese. But he has his own reputation to consider,” Mr. Hewitt added with a touch of sarcasm.
The Priests Council meeting was scheduled for next week but was moved up to Monday when Cardinal Wuerl canceled a planned trip to Ireland to address the World Conference of Families in Dublin.
Francis plans to attend the conference later this week, part of his first visit to Ireland as pope.
But in response, Anne Barrett Doyle of the research group Bishop Accountability said Monday that “mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain.”
Her group greeted the letter by releasing a database of Irish clergy who have been credibly accused or convicted of sexual misconduct — a scandal that has caused membership and church credibility to crater in a country once identified by its Catholicism.
In the letter, Pope Francis invited “the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”
His letter went on to suggest that clericalism — the elevation of priests over lay people in a church that has been governed by the clergy for millennia — needs to be eliminated.
“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed … we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites,” he wrote.
“Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that … whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” Francis declared.
“Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change,” he wrote.
Francis several years ago nixed plans for a Vatican tribunal to prosecute complicit bishops and has refused to act against some, keeping in his Cabinet a Chilean cardinal accused of cover-ups and a Honduran cardinal recently implicated in a gay sex scandal involving his trusted deputy.
The criticism in the Pennsylvania grand jury report focused on not just the sexual abuse — ranging from fondling to rape — committed by priests, but also the role of the church’s bishops, Cardinal Wuerl among them, in moving miscreants to other parishes, silencing or buying off victims and families, and not reporting criminal acts to state authorities.
Marc Thiessen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, said the latest revelations from Pennsylvania, and their similarity to the Boston-centered scandal in 2002, amount to the last straw for the church.
“The bishops and cardinals who ignored or covered up abuses are complicit and must be removed. The church must be cleansed, and the conspiracy of silence ended. The only way to do this is through an independent investigation. The church has proved itself incapable of self-investigation and self-policing — which is evidenced by the fact we are just learning new details of the horrific extent of abuse from a grand jury 16 years after the scandal first erupted,” Mr. Thiessen wrote.
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker said Francis’ letter said the obvious about caring for victims but was still “a slick PR stunt to shift attention away from the abusers and their enablers.”
Father Longenecker, a prominent Catholic blogger-priest, said the letter “1. Lays most of the emphasis on caring for victims. 2. Spreads the blame to ‘all of us.’ 3. Glosses over egregious episcopal crimes. 4. Never mentions homosexuality.”
Rod Dreher, a columnist at The American Conservative, agreed and said the status of Cardinal Wuerl is the litmus test for Pope Francis.
“Now, to the pope’s deeds. Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation has been on Pope Francis’s desk for two years. All Catholic bishops formally resign at age 75, but the pope does not have to accept it. The only thing keeping the disgraced Wuerl in office in Washington is the will of Pope Francis. As long as Donald Wuerl presides over the Archdiocese of Washington, you will know that the pope’s words are empty,” said Mr. Dreher, who has said his coverage of earlier sex-abuse scandals pushed him away from Catholicism to Orthodoxy.
Cardinal Wuerl has defended his handling of abuse charges in Pittsburgh and initially downplayed the McCarrick accusations. “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis,” he said.
Some lay members began taking matters into their own hands Monday regarding Cardinal Wuerl, though.
On the first day of orientation at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School just north of Pittsburgh — the diocese he led from 1988 to 2006 and the object of withering criticism in last week’s grand jury report — vandals attacked the sign in front of the school.
Pictures taken at the Cranberry school Monday morning show red paint covering Cardinal Wuerl’s name, reverting signage to the former “North Catholic” name it had at its previous campus.
According to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, officials in six of the state’s dioceses knew of more than 300 priests accused of varying forms of sexual abuse against more than 1,000 young people. The Diocese of Pittsburgh alone had 99 such priests.
A petition at Change.org to “Remove Cardinal Wuerl’s name from Cardinal Wuerl’s North Catholic High School” had garnered more than 6,800 signatures by 5 p.m.
Nicholas S. Vaskov, a Pittsburgh diocese spokesman, told reporters that Bishop David Zubik will take a recommendation from the school’s board of directors, which he said hadn’t been made, before deciding whether to remove Cardinal Wuerl’s name officially.
At a rally outside the Diocese of Pittsburgh headquarters Monday afternoon, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called for Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Zubik to resign.
According to Pittsburgh radio station KDKA, Monsignor Ron Lengwin invited two members of the group to come inside and talk with the bishop, but “the protesters refused unless reporters were allowed to attend, saying they are tired of all the secrecy.”
Monsignor Legwin expressed disappointment about the refusal and asked KDKA about at least some of the cases: “What was a church to do? If the statute of limitations was over but an allegation was made to us back then, and most of them were beyond that, then what does the church do? Because civil authority’s not going to do anything about it.”