I saw this story earlier today about protesters at a Catholic cardinal’s speech and immediately realized why it wasn’t going to help. Catholics grow increasingly restive concerning Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s complicity in the Pennsylvania abuse report. Many of them issue the same denunciations and complaints. But they don’t want to face the reality that stares them in the face. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a much-needed protest that may not help much because Catholics may not be ready yet to face a very uncomfortable–and obvious–truth about their religion.
Last month, the world reeled in shock and disgust at the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report (“Report”). The Report covered decades of the worst, most horrific child sex abuse imaginable. (As before, page numbers in this post indicate the pages in the PDF.)
If anything could make the situation worse, though, this report also detailed exactly how Catholic leaders in the state covered up about a hundred priests’ child abuse. Through a complex series of tactics, those leaders kept the lid on the scandal for all those years. They maintained a web of silence right up until the 2002 Spotlight reports blew that lid clean off forever.
One of the leaders who helped to conceal all this child-raping was then-bishop Donald Wuerl, who presided over the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 (p. 209). His name shows up hundreds of times in the document. Almost from the start of his 18-year reign there, he dutifully covered up scandals and reassigned child-rapists to new roles involving children (p. 223).
It’s incredibly damning stuff.
The Lines of Power.
Oh, and in 2006, Bishop Wuerl got promoted to Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington (that’s the DC Washington, not the state1). It sure sounds, from the New York Times (NYT) writeup of the promotion, that his handling of sex abuse cases in Pennsylvania contributed mightily to his elevation.
Here’s where things get really convoluted.
According to the NYT, the Archbishop of Washington often ends up on the short list to become a Cardinal. One cardinal elsewhere, Bernard Law, had recently resigned in 2003 over his handling of sex abuse cases in Boston. Theodore McCarrick, the former holder of the Washington archdiocese, had resigned from the position in good standing at the time, but now one wonders if sex abuse had figured into it, considering that McCarrick literally just resigned from the College of Cardinals this summer because his own sex abuse scandals had finally become public.
But now here was Bishop Wuerl, the wonderchild from Pittsburgh, impressing everybody with how he had handled his priests’ sex abuse cases. The Vatican–doubtless relieved–clearly slotted him for the fast track to the top. In 2010, he got his red Cardinal hat from Pope Benedict.
Donald Wuerl had fooled just about everybody outside of those upper levels in Catholicism.
Until 2018, anyway.
The 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report destroyed all those illusions that Donald Wuerl had built up.
Of course, the Catholic spin-doctoring machine swung immediately into action. Wuerl issued what must have sounded to him like a masterwork of denial. Cardinals might not command anywhere near the same kind of respect that they did back when Wuerl was a lil baby-beanie bishop, but they’re still SRS BIZNISS in a lot of ways.
His official statement takes two parts:
- First, a little page on his official Archdiocese site containing a statement and some links he thinks would be helpful in establishing his innocence.
- A PDF link to his legal filing of a statement regarding the Report.
CNN and the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, had a grand time demolishing all of it. CNN titled its rebuttal “Pennsylvania AG: Cardinal under scrutiny over report on priest abuse ‘is not telling the truth.'”
OW OW OW OW OW. The whole thing is a solid 24-karat hoot. Do take a look at it if you can. While politely worded, it’s one of the best steel-plated-boot smackdowns I’ve ever seen of a high-ranking Catholic official.
It seems like much of Catholics’ protests in that neck of the woods centers–rightly, one might add–on Donald Wuerl himself. His response to the scandals constantly cropping up on his watch show a very different side to the man as he’s always presented himself. And that response, as revealed by his own records, surrendered to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, damns him twice; first because of the response itself, and second because of his public reputation as the Catholic hotshot who really knew how to address those scandals.
Yesterday, things heated up just a little more. This incident perhaps took as inspiration an incident last week where an outraged Catholic man in Atlanta stood up to challenge his priest about what Catholics could do to change their hopelessly-broken system. (The priest’s private answer after the conversation during Mass contradicted his entire homily about how everyone had to hold the leaders to account: “You and I have no influence.” At least he was honest–eventually.)
This time, Donald Wuerl led a ceremony at one of his archdiocese’s churches to set up a new priest. After the ceremony, he hung around to give a short speech. In the speech, he asked the people who’d stayed to listen to the speech to pretty-please forgive him for “errors in judgment” and unspecified “inadequacies.”
The This Time.
This time, someone stood up as Wuerl asked the audience to pray for Pope Francis–and of course to stay loyal to him. The cardinal cited as his reasoning that “increasingly it is clear that he is the object of considerable animosity.” It almost sounds like Wuerl was trying to make that animosity sound completely unreasonable, like gee whillikers, why was everybody picking on the poor li’l fella?
It was too much for Brian Garfield. He stood up from his seat in the middle of the church, yelled “Shame on you!” and left. Meanwhile, CNN describes another attendee, Mary Challinor, who stood up during his address, turned her back to him, and folded her arms.
Their protests join those of various other Catholics calling out for Wuerl to resign.
As to Mr. Garfield’s outrage, after he left, Wuerl incorporated the idea of how he totally wished he could have a do-over for the stuff he’d done over the past 30 years. But oh well, he can’t, too bad, so sad, so he hoped everyone would forgive him. Oh, and he wanted them to “keep me, keep all of those that have been abused, all of those who have suffered, all of the church in your prayers.” After that bit of moral leveling, he was finally done.
Increasingly, one major criticism I’m hearing from Catholics in these reports is that they feel their leaders are responding to the scandals and constant revelations of abuse and cover-ups as politicians, not as shepherds of a divine god. And they feel that this is a huge distinction.
They should. That teaching effectively functions as one of the main ones of Catholicism. It’s why priests are called “Father” (unless it’s one of their bastards talking, in which case they are “uncle,” as the centuries-old joke goes). And it’s why one of the fancy gold symbols of their leaders is a shepherd’s crook.
Brian Garfield’s main criticism of Wuerl centers around his desire for Wuerl to address his past “as a pastor and not a politician.” Mary Challinor feels angry because Catholics don’t hear “the facts from the church,” but rather from “a grand jury.”
This same criticism came very quickly upon the release of the Report. I gave a link a while ago to an op-ed from an associate professor of theology at a Catholic university. C.C. Pecknold titled the piece “The Catholic Bishops Who Failed Us All.” And it made exactly the same point. He felt betrayed and hurt that his religious leaders were behaving much more like corporate managers than shepherds.
Of course that’s how they’re behaving.
Catholic leaders behave like managers because the Roman Catholic Church is a business.
It’s just a business that has convinced its customers for centuries that it’s something else entirely. Trust me, reality doesn’t care what Catholics think about the business they’ve kept alive for centuries. That’s still what it is, and this scandal has illustrated that fact better than anything else could.
I’m not sure if Catholics are ready yet to engage with that reality. Their leaders’ indoctrination programs function stunningly well. I see many notes of mourning in the complaints coming from Catholics. I know what that feels like. They got sold a bill of goods about what to expect from their leaders, and those leaders never could fulfill those promises. False as those promises always were, losing even the hope of their fulfillment hits the heart like a knife.
Nor am I at all certain that the upper managers of the Catholic business have any time left to fix this public-relations disaster of theirs. They’ll likely allow Wuerl to retire–he’s of age to do it anyway, after all. And that might outrage Catholics even worse. Over in Ireland, one popular columnist is already burying “Catholic Ireland.” Hopefully soon we’ll see similar sentiments on this side of the pond.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a massive scandal that serves notice to Catholics about what kind of group they really belong to.
NEXT UP: The most hilarious outreach and evangelism effort I’ve ever heard of. See you soon!
1 The Archdiocese of Seattle covers western Washington State. Yes, it all sounds like a way more sinister Society for Creative Anachronism setup. Also, the Diocese of Spokane, which handles the eastern part of the state, declared bankruptcy in 2004 because of the settlements they were forced to pay out in their abuse cases. (Back to the post!)
Final Closing Note: Kinda ironic that today, the official Catholic Saint of the Day is Saint Gregory the Great, who lived from 540-604. Catholics consider him one of the great reformers of the Catholic church. Legend has it that he ended a great many abuses and hypocrisies in the clergy that somehow “Jesus” hadn’t done diddly squat to fix. I wonder what he’d have thought of Cardinal Wuerl.
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.