Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl after Wuerl became entangled in two major sexual abuse and cover-up scandals and lost the support of many in his supporters.
But in a letter released by Wuerl’s office, Francis praised his longtime ally and suggested Wuerl had unfairly become a scapegoat, having made some “mistakes” in handling sex abuse cases, but not having covered them up.
With the resignation, Wuerl becomes the most prominent head to roll in the scandal roiling the Catholic Church after his predecessor as Washington archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, was forced to resign as cardinal over allegations he sexually abused at least two minors and adult seminarians.
A Vatican statement Friday said Francis had accepted Wuerl’s resignation, but named no replacement; Wuerl’s office provided the letter in which the Pope asked him to stay on in a temporary capacity until a new archbishop is found.
The decision came after months in which Wuerl, who turns 78 in November, initially downplayed the scandal, insisted on his own good record, but then progressively came to the conclusion that he could no longer lead the archdiocese.
In his letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he recognized that in asking to retire, Wuerl had put the interests and unity of his flock ahead of his own ambitions, as all shepherds must do.
“You have sufficient elements to justify your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes,” Francis wrote. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defence. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
Wuerl had submitted his resignation to Francis nearly three years ago, when he turned 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. But Francis kept him on, as Popes tend to do with able-bodied bishops who share their pastoral priorities.