Cardinal Donald Wuerl, perhaps the most powerful Catholic cleric in the United States, acknowledged the disquiet and turmoil surrounding his leadership – as well as the Catholic Church as a whole – amid a wave of multi-state abuse-related investigations that has shaken the church to its core.
Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., wrote of an unholy trinity of tension requiring a six-week “season of healing” in a letter sent to his priests on Thursday.
“Among the many observations was that the archdiocese would be well served by new leadership to help move beyond the current confusion, disappointment and disunity,” wrote Wuerl, who met in secret with Pope Francis last month to discuss the crisis. A source told CNN that the pontiff advised Wuerl, a close ally, to consult with his priests about his future.
Just days after that meeting in Rome, Wuerl returned to Washington where, with no apparent intention of resigning, he pledged transparency and accountability in a public mass.
“As we move forward I hope to lead by action, not just by words,” he said.
Now, as he struggles to regain his footing, some are calling into question the motives of the man they say has a history of inaction when it comes to the type of reform he’s now pledging to seek.
“Such a phony,” said David Lorenz, a clerical sex abuse survivor who lives in Maryland.
“I’ve heard those words before, heard them a hundred times. There’s nothing there.”
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At least two of those times, according to Lorenz, were in private meetings he had with the then-newly minted cardinal in 2006.
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Lorenz, who sought an audience with Wuerl to implore greater transparency in the archdiocese of which he had just taken the helm, described an adversarial confrontation that ended abruptly when he asked the prelate to release the names of all of the credibly accused priests in his archdiocese, a gesture of transparency that survivors say is important to the healing process.
According to Lorenz, an agitated Wuerl snapped, “I think you are too angry, and you need to become sacramentally healed.”
“We were basically kicked out,” he told CNN.
Ed McFadden, a spokesman for the archdiocese, described the encounter differently.
“The meeting ended in an ongoing healing manner,” he said.
Allies: Wuerl is a ‘pioneering’ reformer
The confrontation described by Lorenz lies in stark contrast to the reformer that Wuerl’s allies describe him to be.
“Not only is he one of the leaders in this area, and one of the historic pioneers really in this area, but he has spent his entire priesthood, his Episcopacy, dedicated to protecting children,” said Kim Fiorentino, general counsel for the Archdiocese of Washington. “If people reflect on his full record and the facts, they will see that.”
His full record has come under new scrutiny in the wake of a damning grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania. Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years before ascending to Washington in 2006, is painted as having a checkered record when it came to protecting known predator priests.
For example, while he earned accolades for his insistence to Vatican officials that it was his duty to make parishioners aware of credibly accused predator priests within his ranks, he at other times, according to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, handled settlements with survivors, and oversaw the bureaucratic reshuffling of known abusers within the church.
And in Wuerl’s 18 years in Pittsburgh, no list of credibly accused priests was ever released – that only came last month, by a new bishop, following the fury over the grand jury report. And since arriving in Washington in 2006, the now-cardinal has been pressed to do so for several years by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
“We’ve been asking (Wuerl) to post the names for years, and yet he has refused,” added Becky Ianni, a board member of a local SNAP chapter in Washington.
When asked to comment on why Wuerl has refused to publish a list, McFadden, the archdiocese spokesman, said that publishing its own list “is one of the things that is being considered.”
“It’s a change in policy that is being examined today,” he said.
While that one is under consideration, the archdiocese said it has adopted other policies over the years designed to help victims cope as well as to prevent abuse, including support for victims who pursue criminal charges, the fingerprinting and criminal background check of any adult who works with a child, and the immediate reporting of any abuse allegations to law enforcement.
Faith in God, but not in Wuerl
Despite still being haunted for decades by the memory of the priest who abused him, David Lorenz’s faith remains intact, even if his faith in Donald Wuerl – and the church as a whole – is in tatters.
“To sit there and say ‘transparency,’ transparency? Why don’t you publish the names?”
And as for whether he feels he’s been “sacramentally healed,” as Wuerl suggested, Lorenz scoffed.