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Catholic Church Scandal: With Work Comes the Healing

by John Aquino on 04/01/19

I have written reactions in this blog to the scandal in the Catholic Church about accusations that priests over the years had sexually abuse young men and children and that their supervisors had covered it up. On Sunday, March 31, there was either a coda or a new chapter.


Cardinal Donald Wuerl has been the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington since 2006, having previously served as bishop of Pittsburgh. He succeeded Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in the Washington, D.C. archdiocese, who was removed from public ministry on June 18, 2018 as a result of accusations of abuse that a review board of the Archdiocese of New York had found credible. (On February 16, 2019, the Vatican announced McCarrick had been defrocked). A grand jury report on the priest sexual abuse in Pittsburgh that was released August 14, 2018, implicated Wuerl, not in the abuse but in the cover-up. The report did note that Wuerl had often been proactive in dealing with reports of sexually abusive priests and in one instance traveled to Rome to insist that a priest be stripped of priestly duties even after the Vatican ruled his duties be restored. But in other instances, Wuerl was reported to have allowed those accused to remain priests, decisions that were based on psychological evaluations that it would be appropriate for the priests to continue in their duties. Wuerl responded that he had trusted in the science and the science had been wrong. Pope Francis accepted Wuerl's resignation on Oct. 12, 2018, which Wuerl had previously, and routinely, submitted in 2015, and on April 4, 2019 the Catholic News Agency announced that Pope Francis had appointed Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta as the next Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

A friend of mine told me a story about how he had gone to Cardinal McCarrick and asked him to pray for someone close to him who was seriously ill. McCarrick took my friend to a private room, and they knelt together and prayed together. My friend also asked Cardinal Wuerl for his prayers who, gesturing broadly to priests who were members of his staff and standing near, said that "all of us will pray." The contrast was between McCarrick's personal response and Wuerl's more general, more abstract one. The two men had different styles: McCark's more personal, Wuerl's more objective, logical. Of course, one could argue that McCarrick's personal, one-on-one approach may have left him open to problems in certain circumstances.

Cardinal Wuerl continued as Archbishop of Washington until his replacement took over and mostly stayed out of the public eye. Every year of late, a recording of his resonant voice asking for contributions to the needy has been played during Sunday masses in the archdiocese at the beginning of the year. But this March, a recording of one from one of the auxiliary bishops was played instead. But on Sunday, Cardinal Wuerl celebrated Mass in honor of the work done by Catholic health professionals and spoke at the reception afterwards. In his remarks, he applauded the work of the professionals being honored and analogized what they do to the Church scandal. He said that in medicine there is diagnosis, treatment, and continued monitoring. The church had diagnosed the "illness" two decades ago, he said, alluding to when the scandal broke in 2002. We have been treating it, he said, and things are better. But we need to monitor and make sure the illness doesn't reoccur. He prayed that the bishops would continue to monitor. "The ordinary work of the Church goes on, the work of the lay women and lay men goes on, and with that comes the healing, with God's grace," he said.

The remarks reminded me of the contrast between Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl in response to my friend's request for prayers. Wuerl's provided a generalized account of what had happened. And yet, when he had finished, the audience, members of an organization for which Wuerl had been a frequent celebrant at masses, a homilist, and a lunch speaker as well as a sponsor, stood up and applauded, long and loud, honoring the memory of his good works. The event ended, and the group of dedicated Catholic laypersons and religious left to do the more work.

Pope Francis'selection of Archbishop Gregory is significant. Gregory, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops,
chaired the 2002 meeting in Dallas addressing the conference at which the church set the standard of "zero tolerance" of priest sexual abuse.He will also be the first black archbishop of Washington. With the new archbishop appointed, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic throughout the world will continue to struggle with what has happened, and the work of the church will somehow go forward.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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