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Catholics are losing faith in their church. D.C.'s Cardinal Wuerl isn't helping

Last summer, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington twice denied hearing any accusations about sexual misconduc...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 9:44 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 9:44 PM

Last summer, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington twice denied hearing any accusations about sexual misconduct by his predecessor, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

We learned last week that both denials were misleading at best. Wuerl's denials also demonstrate why so many American Catholics, according to a recent Gallup survey, have lost faith in their church and clergy.

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Robert Ciolek, a former priest in New Jersey, said he has seen evidence that Wuerl himself had forwarded Ciolek's accusation against McCarrick to the Pope's representative in the United States in 2004.

As Ciolek came forward last week, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which Wuerl led from 1988-2006, and the Archdiocese of Washington, which he has led since then, issued statements admitting that Wuerl, in fact, did know about "inappropriate activity involving ... Archbishop Theodore McCarrick."

Ciolek has accused McCarrick of misconduct while Ciolek was an adult seminarian and priest in New Jersey during the 1980s. Ciolek told CNN that he came forward last week because he wants to meet with Wuerl and urge him to rebuild trust in the church by coming clean about what he knew about McCarrick.

The Archdiocese of Washington parsed Wuerl's previous denials, saying he was referring to sexual abuse of minors, not adults. "The cardinal stands by those statements, which were not intended to be imprecise," the archdiocese said. It also said Ciolek had requested confidentiality.

Ciolek, now an attorney in New Jersey, scoffs at that idea.

Ciolek had requested that "every effort be made to keep my name confidential," but authorized Wuerl to share his name with church officials if necessary, according to a letter he wrote to the Pittsburgh Diocese in 2004. Ciolek, who became a lawyer in New Jersey after leaving the priesthood, shared the letter with CNN.

He said nothing prevented Wuerl from acknowledging that he knew about an accusation against McCarrick while keeping Ciolek's name confidential.

"He has been talking out of both sides of his mouth," Ciolek said. "It's very hurtful to me as a victim when he dismisses the accusations against Cardinal McCarrick as 'rumors.' These were not rumors. They had my story!"

The Archdiocese of Washington did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Ciolek's assertions.

Wuerl's denials

Ciolek points to two interviews, one with CBS News and one with the Washington Archdiocese's own newspaper, the Catholic Standard, in which Wuerl is clearly asked about McCarrick's misconduct with adults, not minors.

"In the past month, I have seen some of those now public reports," Wuerl told the Standard last July. "But in my years here in Washington and even before that, I had not heard them. With rumors -- especially old rumors going back 30, 40, even 50 years -- there is not much we can do unless people come forward to share what they know or what they experienced."

Wuerl clearly had heard the rumors. Ciolek had shared what he said he'd experienced at McCarrick's hands -- inappropriate sexual contact -- and Wuerl had shared that information with the Vatican.

McCarrick, who now lives cloistered in a friary in Kansas, has not commented on the accusations about his improper conduct with seminarians and young priests. He has denied an accusation, found credible by a church review board in New York last year, that he molested an altar boy in the 1970s.

A church investigation of McCarrick is reportedly being fast-tracked at the Vatican.

The Pope accepted Wuerl's resignation as Archbishop of Washington in October, after months of pressure from local Catholics. Still, Francis said he was "proud" of Wuerl's "nobility" and said he has "sufficient elements to 'justify' your actions," praise that angered abuse survivors.

And Wuerl remains on two of the Catholic Church's most powerful bodies, the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reviews allegations of clergy sexual abuse.

As the church's clergy sexual abuse crisis grinds on into 2019, there have been big revelations and small ones. Sometimes the small ones yield bigger mysteries.

In this case: What did the Vatican do with Ciolek's accusation? Why was McCarrick allowed to serve as archbishop of Washington, one of the church's most powerful posts, for two more years? Who, in addition to Wuerl, knew about Ciolek's accusations, and what is their future in the church?

At least in the United States, the Pope's answers to those questions could overshadow his unprecedented meeting in February, at which some 150 bishops from around the world are expected to debate and approve measures to address clergy sexual abuse.

While the United States is just a slice of the overall church, the McCarrick questions are clearly on a lot of minds. At the US Catholic bishops meeting in November, bishop after bishop rose to tell the assembly that "their people back home" wanted answers about McCarrick. More than 80 bishops voted to pressure the Pope to release all the Vatican's files on McCarrick. (The measure was defeated 137-83.)

Some of the anti-McCarrick sentiment can be attributed to the church's bitter partisan divides. The former cardinal, who was demoted by Pope Francis last summer, was a well-known liberal whose sexuality was evidently an open secret in the church. Conservatives often argue that gay priests are in some ways to blame for the clergy abuse scandal. Liberals counter that there is no known connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.

Investigating the investigators

As the church moves from the apology stage to the action stage, such distinctions are important. In that way, a recent article by former New York Times reporter Peter Steinfels is valuable.

Steinfels evidently spent months picking apart last year's Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which accused 301 priests of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children over the course of seven decades.

In an article in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, Steinfels notes that the grand jury report spends a great deal of time detailing the horrific abuses of children by Catholic priests in six dioceses since 1947.

But the grand jury, whose work has resulted in the convictions of two priests, concerns mainly historical abuses from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, not contemporary ones. Pennsylvania's statute of limitations on sexual abuse claims, which the grand jury recommended lifting, prevented most cases from being prosecuted.

As Steinfels acknowledges, the Pennsylvania grand jury report "documents decades of stomach-churning violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children and young people."

But he found little evidence for some of the report's more sensational claims, namely that "priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all."

That claim is hyperbolic, Steinfels argues.

As the report itself states, some "men of God" -- namely high-ranking vicars and bishops -- did not, at all times, in all instances, try to hide the crimes of pedophile priests.

In some cases, they removed the priests from ministry, sent them to rehab facilities, prevented them from working with children and appealed to the Vatican to laicize, or defrock, abusers. Wuerl himself did just that in one case, pressuring the Vatican's high court to reverse itself and remove a pedophile priest from ministry. In other cases, Wuerl has acknowledged, he made "errors in judgment."

One "man of God," Bishop Donald Trautman, the former bishop of Erie, Pennsylvania, successfully lobbied state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to sign a stipulation expressly acknowledging that some of the report's most sensational charges alleging cover-ups "are not specifically directed at Bishop Trautman."

There are more examples of bishops, including Wuerl, doing the right thing, Steinfels argues, if Catholics and journalists read the 400 pages of responses from priests and dioceses in the grand jury report. (The report itself is more than 1,300 pages long.)

But other Catholics say Steinfels gives church leaders too much credit, and use Wuerl's recent misleading statements as Exhibit A.

'Calculated and conniving'

Wuerl is known as a careful and conscientious churchman. "Imprecise," is not a word that comes up often in his company. His former priests in Pittsburgh complained that he supplied binders full of instructions for every aspect of running their parish.

Since the McCarrick accusations became public, Wuerl has faced a firestorm of questions about what he knew, and when. Most of his answers have been carefully couched, Ciolek says.

Wuerl has said, for example, that he was not aware of any accusations occurring during McCarrick's time in Washington, eliding over the fact that most of the accusations date from McCarrick's time as a priest in New York or bishop in New Jersey.

"He is slippery, calculated and conniving," Ciolek said. "He created the impression he wanted to create -- that he knew nothing."

That impression is no longer tenable.

Last week, while this news was breaking, Gallup released a poll showing that less than a third of Catholics in the United States have high opinions of clergy's honesty and ethics, a drop of 18 percentage points in the last year.

That drop comes at a crucial time for the church, as Pope Francis seeks to rally dispirited Catholics and push much-needed reforms through a recalcitrant Vatican curia.

The Vatican has said it is investigating McCarrick's conduct and will make its conclusions public "in due course." Some church watchers say it may come before the Pope's big meeting next month in Rome with bishops from around the world.

The stakes -- for the church and its credibility -- could hardly be higher.

"This is a big moment for the church," Ciolek said. "People don't trust it."

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