VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis accepted the resignation Friday of the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, after he became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals and lost the support of many in his flock.
But in a letter released by Wuerl's office, Francis asked Wuerl to stay on temporarily until a replacement is found and suggested he had unfairly become a scapegoat and victim of the mounting outrage among rank-and-file Catholics over the abuse scandal.
The pope's apparent reluctance to remove Wuerl was evidence of the fraught personnel decisions he has been forced to make as he grapples with the burgeoning global scandal that has implicated some of his closest advisers and allies, including top churchmen in the U.S., Belgium, Honduras, Chile and Australia.
With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.
A grand jury report issued in August on rampant sex abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by McCarrick.
A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl's resignation as Washington archbishop, but named no replacement; in his letter, the pope asked him to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.
Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially played down the scandal and insisted on his own good record, but then progressively came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.
"The Holy Father's decision to provide new leadership to the archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future," Wuerl said in a statement Friday. "Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon."
In a letter to the Washington faithful, which Wuerl asked to be read aloud at Mass this weekend, Wuerl directed himself in particular at survivors of abuse.
"I am sorry and ask for healing for all those who were so deeply wounded at the hands of the church's ministers," he wrote. "I also beg forgiveness on behalf of church leadership from the victims who were again wounded when they saw these priests and bishops both moved and promoted."
In his letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he recognized that, in asking to retire, Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions. He once again referred obliquely to the devil being at work in accusing bishops of wrongdoing, saying the "father of lies" was trying to hurt shepherds and divide their flock.
"You have sufficient elements to justify your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes," Francis wrote. "However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this I am proud and thank you."
Francis' praise for Wuerl alarmed survivors' advocates, who said it was evidence of the clerical culture Francis himself denounces in which the church hierarchy consistently protects its own.
Terrence McKiernan, president of the online abuse database BishopAccountability, said it showed that for Francis, "Cardinal Wuerl is more important than the children he put in harm's way. Until Pope Francis reverses this emphasis on coddling the hierarchy at the expense of children, the Catholic Church will never emerge from this crisis."
Wuerl had submitted his resignation to Francis nearly three years ago, when he turned 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. But Francis kept him on, as popes tend to do with able-bodied bishops who share their pastoral priorities.
But Wuerl made a personal appeal to Francis last month to accept the resignation, following the fallout of the McCarrick scandal and outrage over the Pennsylvania grand jury report that has led to a crisis in confidence in the church hierarchy.
Wuerl was also named prominently in the 11-page denunciation of the McCarrick cover-up that was penned by the Vatican's former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who accused a long line of U.S. and Vatican churchmen of turning a blind eye to McCarrick's penchant for sleeping with seminarians.
Wuerl has not been charged with any wrongdoing but was named numerous times in the Pennsylvania report, which details instances in which he allowed priests accused of misconduct to be reassigned or reinstated.
In one case cited in the report, Wuerl – acting on a doctor's recommendation – enabled the Rev. William O'Malley to return to active ministry in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against O'Malley in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents. Years later, according to the report, six more people had alleged that they were sexually assaulted by O'Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.
In another case, Wuerl returned a priest to active ministry in 1995 despite having received multiple complaints that the priest, the Rev. George Zirwas, had molested boys in the late 1980s.
Wuerl apologized for the damage inflicted on the victims but also defended his efforts to combat clergy sex abuse.
His defenders have cited a case that surfaced in 1988, when a 19-year-old former seminarian, Tim Bendig, filed a lawsuit accusing a priest, Anthony Cipolla, of molesting him. Wuerl initially questioned Bendig's account but later accepted it and moved to oust Cipolla from the priesthood. The Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to restore Cipolla to priestly ministry, but Wuerl resisted and, after two years of legal procedures, prevailed in preventing Cipolla's return.
"No bishop or cardinal in the nation has had a more consistent and courageous record than Donald Wuerl in addressing priestly sexual abuse," contended Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.
Wuerl's archdiocese issued a series of similar plaudits Friday, coinciding with the Vatican announcement. They included a letter from the archdiocesan chancellor, Kim Vitti Fiorentino, who lamented that Wuerl's "pioneering leadership in the enhancement, implementation and enforcement of historically innovative child protection policies was overshadowed by the [Pennsylvania grand jury] report's flaws and its interpretation by the media."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes for Religion News Service, described Wuerl as an ideological moderate.
"He was totally enthusiastic about John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict, and now he's totally enthusiastic about Pope Francis," Reese said. "There are not many people in the church who are totally enthusiastic about all three of them."
Numerous conservative Catholic activists and commentators, though, considered him too tolerant of the LGBT community and too liberal on some other issues. They resented his pivotal role a decade ago in resisting a push by some of his fellow bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support the right to abortion.
Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, attended Catholic University in Washington and received a doctorate in theology from the University of Saint Thomas in Rome. He joined the priesthood in 1966, was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1986, and served briefly as auxiliary bishop in Seattle before going to Pittsburgh.
Crary reported from New York.