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Cardinal Wuerl reflects on next steps in wake of allegations against former archbishop

Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Standard in Washington

On June 20, 2018, the Archdiocese of New York announced that an allegation of abuse of a male teenager, against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick when he was a New York priest nearly 50 years ago, was deemed “credible and substantiated.” The retired prelate was subsequently removed from public ministry.

At the same time as the New York Archdiocese announcement, the Archdiocese of Newark and Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey revealed that confidential and undisclosed financial settlements were made in two cases alleging that Bishop McCarrick, when he was bishop there, engaged in misconduct with adult seminarians. These settlements, it later turns out, were made in 2005, after Archbishop McCarrick was already serving in the Archdiocese of Washington, and in 2007 after he retired. The Archdiocese of Washington was not informed of the settlements and certainly was not involved in them. Both confidential settlements came to light only in 2018.

The New York Times subsequently printed an account of a man, now 60, who said that then-Father McCarrick abused him in his youth. As a bishop, McCarrick reportedly continued a sexually abusive relationship with the man over nearly two decades. Cardinal McCarrick, who became the archbishop of Washington in 2001 and retired in 2006, denied the first allegation and has not commented on the subsequent reports.

On July 28, it was announced that Pope Francis had accepted Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, and requested that Cardinal McCarrick withdraw to a life of prayer and penance in seclusion until the completion of the canonical process.

The same day that the New York allegation was made public, Cardinal Wuerl wrote a letter to local Catholics, expressing shock and sadness at the news, and noting that the final determination of the case would come from Rome. He said a review of the Archdiocese of Washington’s records found that no claim of any kind was made against now-Archbishop McCarrick during his tenure in Washington.

Cardinal Wuerl noted, “Our first priority as a Church is to continue to offer spiritual and pastoral support for the survivors of abuse and their families, and to provide assistance to help them heal and find peace.” He noted that the archdiocese would continue to work diligently to ensure that parishes, schools and youth programs remain safe and secure for the young entrusted to the Church’s care, and he encouraged local Catholics to pray for “all those who have been victimized by abuse, and for our Church, that everyone may experience the healing power of God’s grace.”

The following is the text of an interview with Cardinal Wuerl by the Catholic Standard, a newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

1.    In your letter to local Catholics regarding Archbishop McCarrick, you noted the first priority for the Church is to continue its spiritual and pastoral support for abuse survivors and their families.  What is your message to them in the aftermath of the news regarding Archbishop McCarrick?

In every communication with our Catholic faithful, clergy, religious and laity as this tragedy and its details unfolded, I have emphasized that our first concern must always be with those who have suffered abuse. In this case, as with other cases, it is imperative that the leadership of the Catholic Church encourage survivors to step forward, address abuse claims, and focus its attention and care on the survivors of abuse. 

In our spiritual and pastoral ministries, we will continue to console, heal and nurture those most in need. We will support them and their families, and provide assistance to help them find peace and experience the healing power of God’s grace.

2.    Over the past month, the Archbishop McCarrick scandal has shifted a couple times. It was initially just one claim in New York, but then the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark disclosed the existence of confidential settlements for claims made by adults against him. There have also been numerous stories or blog posts that repeated long-standing rumors or innuendos that may be out there regarding Archbishop McCarrick.  How will these be addressed?

In the past month, I have seen some of those now public reports. But in my years here in Washington and even before that, I had not heard them. With rumors – especially old rumors going back 30, 40, even 50 years – there is not much we can do unless people come forward to share what they know or what they experienced. 

The action taken by Pope Francis within the past few days, accepting now-Archbishop McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals affirms what many of us have been saying for some time: that the Church must act decisively to show that we have heard the voices of the faithful who demand action. To that point, it remains important for us to have the fullest picture of the claims against Archbishop McCarrick.

We are seeing some brave survivors step forward to speak to the media, and share their stories. This is a good first step, but I would hope these individuals and any others with claims of abuse would come forward and speak with Church authorities – either here at the Archdiocese of Washington or in the diocese where they reside. The claims that have been made are profoundly troubling; individuals should not have to bear them alone. The Church wants to accompany those in pain, to offer pastoral or therapeutic assistance, to help heal their wounds. 

We understand that for those who have been abused, there is the fear of retaliation or shame, there remains anger, and perhaps doubt that justice will be done. The Catholic Church has spent many years working to create an environment for survivors to tell their stories, and working to act on their claims, but I understand their hesitancy even today. I would hope, however, that people with knowledge of such acts will come forward so that we can investigate and give these claims full and fair consideration. That is why we continue to call on all with information to come forward.

3.    You met with the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington to discuss this matter.  This news must be especially heart-rending to the priests who worked with Archbishop McCarrick, who were ordained by him or who served in parishes or other ministries when he was archbishop here. How can they find healing in confronting this matter?

Priests in particular feel the pain of the failure of a brother priest.  The bonds of commitment and ministry are strong, and we can feel extraordinary disappointment.  Priests also remind me that when there is a failure in the actions of one priest, we all are somehow held accountable. 

In the meeting with our priests, I think we all recognized the pain and sadness of the human condition, our need for God’s grace every day to carry out our ministry, and our need to support one another just as we struggle to support the faithful entrusted to our care. 

One way to at least begin the process is to actually speak about it frankly, and that was what we did in our meeting.  We discussed the media accounts of rumors involving Archbishop McCarrick and that until the New York allegation was made public, there really had been no substantiation of them, certainly not here in Washington. And I was asked whether I had any knowledge of the specific allegation in New York, which I had never heard before. So it was frank conversation.

We share the conviction that any abusive behavior, any form of harassment or sexual misconduct is a betrayal of our ordination promises. In attempting to understand how this happened, it enables each of us to better communicate to those we serve who are feeling just as disappointed and hurt, if not more so for the breach of trust.  

4.    You also met with the archdiocese’s seminarians and spoke with them about this.  What are your hopes and prayers for these men moving forward, as they continue discerning a call to serve Christ and his Church as priests?

My concern for the seminarians is that they would not have their zeal and idealism in any way tarnished by the failure of any priest.  One of the consoling things for me in that meeting, as I listened to their comments and observations, was the recognition that these young men are firmly grounded in their faith and their spiritual life is truly focused on Jesus, the Lord.  I remained impressed with their maturity. They are the heirs of the experience of social media and so are really not completely shocked by such tragic news. Disappointed yes, but sexual abuse in our culture and society is not news to them.

We hold this great treasure in earthen vessels, Saint Paul tells us.  The seminary is a place where we try to realize all the more how precious the treasure is and our need as an earthen vessel to be as attentive as possible to the work of God’s grace in our lives.  It was important that we met at Saint John Paul II Seminary, that we prayed together for the survivors of abuse, and that we reaffirmed our commitment to reflect Christ’s love and mercy on our vocational journey.

At every ordination and throughout the year, I talk with my brother priests and our seminarians about the holy life to which we are called, and about the faithful love that is at the heart of priestly ministry. Remaining true to that call, trying to be icons of Christ in our community and our world, is needed today more than ever. 

5.    The family of faith in the Archdiocese of Washington, in its parishes, schools and agencies, has also experienced the shock and disappointment of the news involving their former archbishop.  How do you hope that they can find healing?

The news regarding Archbishop McCarrick was a great shock to our Church in Washington. There is understandable anger, both on a personal level due to the charges, but also more broadly at the Church. Our faithful have lived through such scandals before, and they are demanding accountability. I believe the actions taken by Pope Francis clearly reflect an understanding that we must move swiftly to address claims of any form of abuse or serious breach of trust by ministers of the Church, no matter who they may be or what position they may hold. Acknowledging such grave breaches of trust and seeking forgiveness open the doors for healing.

The starting point for our own healing is the recognition that God is with his Church and that the Church does not depend on any individual human being, and that God’s grace is at work among us through all of those whom he calls to ministry or to any other particular pathway in life.

I would hope we would not lose sight of the larger vision of our Church. Across the archdiocese we have many, many fine priests, deacons, and religious, we have lay staff and volunteers in parishes and Catholic Charities, who do amazing things for their neighbors every day. For all of the necessary attention we must give to the current crisis, I would hope that as part of the healing process we come to see the good we accomplish every day and that we continue to share God’s love across our archdiocese. 

Opening our hearts to God in prayer also helps in healing, and our faith helps us see beyond the failure of any person, and helps us hold fast to the mystery of God’s goodness at work in this world and in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, and in the priesthood that is lived in so many good, effective, caring and faithful priests. We should pray for all who may have in any way been harmed by Archbishop McCarrick, and we should also pray for him. 

6.    When hearing of scandals in the Catholic Church, there are those in the broader community, including some who have drifted away from the Church, who might regard such news as a reaffirmation of their disbelief in the Church as an institution or in the truth that it seeks to teach.  What would you say to them?

It is understandable that some people hear this latest news and see it as confirmation of their lack of faith in the Church, or their lack of trust in its leadership. People were rightfully angry over the child sex abuse scandals, which we continue to address. It means we must work harder.

Perhaps one of the reasons the news about Archbishop McCarrick was so stunning was because here in Washington, we had together made such great strides, not only in growing the faith, but also in serving those in need, and, yes, protecting the most vulnerable members of our community. 

While the reports today of sexual abuse almost always refer to actions taken years and even decades ago, we must continue to take them seriously, fully investigate them and offer survivors support and healing.

Our own record in this Archdiocese is that we have made in the past, and continue to make now, every effort to address abuse. Our Archdiocese has a well-developed and enforced Child Protection Policy and a well-functioning Child Protection Advisory Board that meets regularly and reviews the policy and its implementation.

The annual audit by an outside professional audit team has consistently affirmed the quality of our protection and education programs and our fidelity to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

This does not mitigate in any way the pain these alleged actions have brought on the survivors and their families, and on the members of the Church. We are at a moment where, again, we must acknowledge such wrongdoing whenever it occurs. We must continue to press forward with what was started in the June 2002 meeting in Dallas to address, as a Conference of Bishops, the question of clergy abuse.

The efforts at education, prevention and child protection have taken hold. That we continue to deal with scandal from decades ago – while also seeing far fewer abuse claims from current times – is a reminder of what we must continue to do. It is a reminder that we must create an environment where survivors continue to come forward to seek justice and healing, and that we as a Church must acknowledge the pain of all those affected by abuse and do all we can to bring them God’s grace and healing. 

Personally, I have drawn great consolation from the recognition that, like her Divine Master and Founder, the Church is an incarnational reality.  It has a divine as well as a human aspect.  The Church is the home of Christ’s continuing presence in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in the Word of God and in the lives and works of charity of so many faithful.  Nonetheless, all that is transmitted through human beings. Jesus chose to found his Church on the Apostles and called them to carry out his work. 

In the long history of the Church, not all bishops, the successors to the Apostles, have been perfect. That is a reality which we live with because we understand that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy. In the meantime, our task is to support one another and to help one another to be everything that Christ asks us to be, to stand for and live in his truth.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018