By Timothy Rush | Staff Writer
On Oct. 12, as part of the tremors left in the wake of the revelations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania over the course of several decades, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Wuerl. Cardinal Wuerl, now former archbishop of Washington, D.C., served as the eleventh bishop of Pittsburgh. Installed on March 25, 1988, he moved to become archbishop of Washington. His time as bishop was originally characterized as a time of merging parishes and engaging with Catholics through various avenues such as television and newspaper.
This legacy is thoroughly overshadowed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed a decades long activity of covering up sexual abuse, as Wuerl was named in the report among the Church leaders that did cover up sexual abuse during his time as bishop of Pittsburgh. While he doesn’t appear to be on the same level as others, such as disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who actively engaged in sexual abuse, the report notes that he was immersed in an ecclesiastic culture of not treating sexual assault seriously or as a matter worth the notice of his parishioners.
In his resignation, Wuerl did accept responsibility for the actions detailed in the grand jury report, stating, “I wish that I could redo some decisions I have made in my three decades as a bishop and each time get it right.”
In return for this candor, Pope Francis accepted his resignation warmly, but went further than simply recognizing the honesty on Wuerl’s part. The Pope described Wuerl’s actions of not defending his own actions as bishop as “noble,” and Wuerl will not only remain in his position until a replacement is found, but he will remain on the Congregation of Bishops, responsible for choosing future church leaders.
And that is the problem. Sexual abuse is a serious matter, one that the Catholic Church should treat with zero tolerance. That same grand jury report found that there were over 1,000 identifiable victims, and while Wuerl was certainly not responsible for all of it, only presiding as bishop for 30 years in a 70 year long period, he still needs to be held responsible for not treating it seriously during his time as bishop.
No, Pope Francis, choosing not to defend his own indefensible inaction as bishop is not noble, it just means that he at least has some decency in the wake of these revelations. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania attorney general who oversaw the grand jury report, was astonished by the lack of action taken by the church. Following the acceptance of the resignation by the Pope, Shapiro stated, “It is unacceptable that then-Bishop Wuerl … oversaw and participated in the systematic cover-up that he did when leading the Pittsburgh Diocese and that he is now able to retire seemingly with no consequences for his actions,” going so far as to say, “We can’t rely on the Church to fix itself.”
Wuerl needs to be held responsible for his action; not be called “noble” and left in his position for an undetermined time while a replacement is found, and he certainly shouldn’t be left in the extremely influential position of being part of choosing future church leaders. If Pope Francis and the Catholic Church want to fight sexual abuse, they first need to take the stance of holding people responsible for both action and inaction. While action creates the problem, inaction perpetuates it. By Wuerl’s silence, these cases were allowed to continue, and by the Pope’s lax response, the Catholic Church will continue to not take these issues seriously.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German preacher and anti-Nazi activist during the rise of Nazism in Germany, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
If God will not hold us guiltless, neither should we ourselves. Wuerl is guilty of both action and inaction, in participating in covering up sexual abuse and not actively fighting against it. The Pope is guilty of inaction, by not treating this matter with the severity it deserves. And if we do not hold both of these men responsible for these matters, we ourselves are guilty of inaction.