As the embattled Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, addressed the Catholic Church’s clergy sexual abuse scandal on Sunday, one Catholic yelled “Shame on you!” while another turned her back on Wuerl in protest.
Wuerl, who faces accusations that he mishandled clergy sexual misconduct while he was a bishop in Pittsburgh, addressed Washington’s Annunciation Catholic Church, where the cardinal was installing a new pastor. In a short speech after the Mass, Wuerl asked the 200 or so people in the congregation to forgive his “errors in judgment” and “inadequacies.”
Wuerl also urged the parish to pray for and remain loyal to Pope Francis, as “increasingly it is clear that he is the object of considerable animosity.”
As Wuerl mentioned the Pope, Brian Garfield, who was sitting in the middle of the church, stood and yelled “Shame on you!” and quickly walked out.
Wuerl noted the interruption but continued speaking.
“Yes, my brothers and sisters, shame,” Wuerl said. “I wish I could re-do everything over these 30 years as a bishop and each time get it always right. That’s not the case. I do think together, asking for God’s mercy, pleading for God’s grace, recognizing that we can move into light, I simply ask you to keep me, keep all of those that have been abused, all of those who have suffered, all of the church in your prayers.”
Afterward, Garfield, a lifelong Catholic, told CNN that he was upset about Wuerl’s response to a damning grand jury report from Pennsylvania, which found that more than 300 Catholic priests had abused more than 1,000 children since 1947 in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh.
The grand jury report, along with a separate scandal involving the former archbishop of Washington, have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States and sparked a high-stakes power play at the Vatican, with some pushing for the Pope’s removal.
“I don’t think he is a monster but I wish he would talk less about defending himself and more about his failings,” Garfield said of Wuerl. “It’s a little galling to be lectured on transparency by people who are lying to us,” he continued. “I wish he would talk to us as a pastor and not a politician.”
Most of the congregation clapped for Wuerl when he ended his brief address, and, as they shuffled out of the church on Sunday, many shook the cardinal’s hand and offered brief sentiments of support.
“Cardinal Wuerl has spoken extensively over the past two months, conveyed his profound sadness, apologies and contrition, and addressed every issue as it has arisen in a straightforward and transparent manner,” said Edward McFadden, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington.
But Mary Challinor does not agree. As Wuerl addressed the congregation at Annunciation on Sunday, Challinor stood in the choir loft with her back to him and her arms crossed.
“I think he should resign,” Challinor told CNN. “I think he should understand that just because you didn’t mean to do something doesn’t mean that there weren’t terrible consequences for lots of people.”
In a later interview, Challinor said she’s a devout Catholic and comes from a family that has always protested the church when they felt it was necessary. She recalled a time as a child when she and her father walked out of church to protest Pope Paul VI’s birth control encyclical.
She told CNN she’s frustrated by Francis and Wuerl. She’d like to see Wuerl step aside, even if he’s vindicated, in support of “radical change” in how the church handles the scandal, and she’d like to see more action and a push for more transparency from the pontiff, she said.
“I, speaking for myself, do not approve of the way the church has handled this scandal for the last 16 years,” she said. “We want to hear about the facts from the church, not a grand jury.”
Wuerl has been under increasing pressure to step down, including calls from prominent Catholics who say that healing in the church requires new leadership. Archdiocesan officials say he does not have plans to resign.
Like all Catholic bishops, Wuerl technically resigned when he turned 75 two years ago. But the Pope hasn’t accepted his resignation. Cardinals are often allowed to serve until they are 80, if they are in good health.
Wuerl was in Rome this week for a regularly scheduled meeting with Vatican officials from the powerful Congregation for Bishops, said McFadden. The spokesman said he does not know if Wuerl met with Pope Francis.
Wuerl also faces questions, including accusations from a former top Vatican official, that he knew his predecessor in Washington, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, had been accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians but did not take action.
“Cardinal Wuerl has categorically denied that any of this information was communicated to him,” the Washington archdiocese said in a statement.
The accusations against Wuerl come from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s US ambassador from 2011-2016. Vigano has emerged as a controversial figure, especially since accusing the Pope and other Vatican officials of weaving a “conspiracy of silence” in a public letter published last Sunday.
In the letter, Vigano called on Pope Francis to resign, saying he was part of a “cover-up” involving McCarrick, whom the Pope forced to resign last month after accusations of sexual misconduct with seminarians and allegations that he abused a minor in the 1970s.
McCarrick has not commented on the accusations involving seminarians and has said he is innocent of the charge that he abused a minor.
In a second letter, published late Saturday, Vigano said top Vatican officials have told untruths about a meeting he set up in 2015 between the Pope and Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who cited her Christian faith in refusing to sign same-sex marriage certificates.
Vigano’s accusations have divided US Catholic bishops, with some vouching for Vigano’s character and calling for an investigation into the charges and others, such as Cardinal James Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, saying they are based on “factual errors, innuendo and fearful ideology.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called for a church investigation into “the many questions surrounding McCarrick,” including Vigano’s allegations.
The Pope has not responded to Vigano’s accusations, calling on journalists instead to determine if they are true.
Some Catholics, including the editors at America, a Jesuit magazine based in New York, have accused Vigano and other conservatives of “weaponizing” the church’s sexual abuse crisis, “shifting the focus from listening to survivors to Vatican intrigues.”
But the America editors also say the Pope should answer his former ambassador’s charges.
“Francis’ refusal to respond to the Viganò accusations may be an attempt to stay above the fray rather than dignify a venomous ideological attack,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, the pope’s refusal is an insufficient pastoral response for a church that is deeply wounded.”