WASHINGTON — As the Archdiocese of Washington celebrated the opening of school with a special Mass on Tuesday, a group of teachers instead marked the occasion by calling for the removal of the capital’s embattled archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
The cardinal is among several American Catholic leaders implicated in the growing sex abuse scandal enveloping the church. This month, Cardinal Wuerl’s name appeared in a Pennsylvania grand jury report, which cited cases when the cardinal, then the bishop of Pittsburgh, allowed abusive priests back into the ministry. Then over the weekend, Cardinal Wuerl was accused by a former Vatican diplomat of knowing about the sexual misconduct of his predecessor in the Washington diocese, Theodore E. McCarrick.
A statement that garnered about 50 signatures from Washington diocese teachers announced that they were boycotting the Mass on Tuesday, held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as “an act of solidarity against the injustices condoned by Cardinal Wuerl and the greater hierarchy of the Church.” They held a brief prayer service themselves outside the basilica to pray for the survivors and victims.
“The reason we do this is because kids are important to us and their education is important to us,” said Jack Devlin, 27, a local teacher who stood with several colleagues on the outskirts of the basilica under a nearby tree, holding signs emblazoned with Bible verses about justice. “We care. This is personal.”
Known as an excellent manager, Cardinal Wuerl has leveraged his high-profile perch in the nation’s capital, his seat on the Vatican committee that appoints bishops and, more recently, his closeness with Pope Francis to wield considerable power in the church. But the teacher demonstration was the latest sign of the pressure on Cardinal Wuerl that has been building in recent weeks.
Protesters have gathered regularly outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Vandals defaced a sign bearing Cardinal Wuerl’s name at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry, Pa., which is now set to be renamed. And the Rev. Percival L. D’Silva, at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a Washington parish, called on the cardinal to resign for his role in overseeing abusive priests.
“I can’t imagine that it’s easy to do his job on a daily basis when the press on all sides are pursuing these stories and the protests and the calls for his resignation are coming from several sides,” said Stephen Schneck, the former director of the Institute for Policy Research at the Catholic University of America.
Previously known as a champion of sex abuse survivors, Cardinal Wuerl in 2002 famously fought an order from the Vatican that he reinstate a priest, Anthony J. Cipolla, who had previously abused children. Cardinal Wuerl was not accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania investigation, and the grand jury report credits him with intervening in other cases to prevent abusive priests from returning to the ministry, which was unusual at the time. But it also cites cases in which he allowed priests to return to parishes after treatment, including one whose alleged sexual abuse continued.
And last week, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, leveled a new allegation at the cardinal, writing in a widely circulated letter that he was informed by the Vatican about sexual misconduct committed by his predecessor in the Washington diocese, former Cardinal McCarrick.
On Tuesday, the archdiocese emphatically denied that accusation.
“Cardinal Wuerl has categorically denied that any of this information was communicated to him,” the statement said. “Archbishop Viganò at no time provided Cardinal Wuerl any information about an alleged document from Pope Benedict XVI with directives of any sort from Rome regarding Archbishop McCarrick.”
Cardinal Wuerl’s defenders say the movement against him is at least partly rooted in ideological differences. The cardinal is seen as an ally of Pope Francis’ liberal reforms.
“Someone’s scalp must go,” said Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “And what is especially irresponsible is that there are people who hate the cardinal for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting children.”
Mr. Winters said several bishops had probably made similar decisions as Cardinal Wuerl in reassigning priests that they now know should not have been reassigned, particularly on recommendations from psychiatrists. The grand jury report, he said, was being treated as a verdict as opposed to a series of claims.
But for some Catholics, it was the cardinal’s actions, and his initial response to the grand jury report — in which he stated that “I think I did everything I possibly could” — that was unforgivable.
“I was appalled by his response, not even saying he’s sorry,” said Becky Ianni, leader of the Washington chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which last week also called for the cardinal’s removal. “As far as I’m concerned, his inaction allowed other children to be hurt,” she said.
And the teachers’ petition, addressed to the Vatican’s liaison to Catholics in the United States, asks for Cardinal Wuerl’s removal simply on the grounds that he “has been complicit in the abuse of children.”
The cardinal, 77, has already offered his resignation, as all Catholic bishops are required to do at 75. But it is Pope Francis who determines whether he will actually leave his post in Washington. “If Pope Francis wants him to stay on, Cardinal Wuerl will stay on,” Dr. Schneck said.
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