The next Archbishop of Washington faces a very difficult task
In the ten days since the publication of an Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse, newspapers around the country have run op-eds calling for Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign as Archbishop of Washington.
His hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, even ran a guest column dubbing Wuerl the “con man in the cardinal’s cap.” Technically, of course, Wuerl resigned from his post in 2015, and is now only waiting for Pope Francis to accept that resignation. But, until recently, many expected Wuerl to stay in his post until 2020 or close to it. The popular movement calling for his resignation is a surprise even for many of those who watch episcopal appointments closely.
It was rumored last week that Wuerl would announce that his resignation had been accepted at an Aug. 20 meeting of his priests’ council. When that didn’t happen, rumors began to swirl that Wuerl’s tenure would come to an end Aug. 24, or that it would be announced Aug. 27.
Multiple sources close to the cardinal have told CNA that they have gotten no word that Wuerl’s resignation will be accepted imminently, and a few say that Wuerl could still be Archbishop of Washington when the U.S. bishops convene in November. But whenever it happens, it seems likely that Wuerl will leave his post in Washington sometime soon.
As the pope considers when to accept Wuerl’s resignation, he must also decide who should replace the cardinal as Archbishop of Washington.
The choice of Wuerl’s successor will be significant. In fact, the decision will likely set the tone for the Church’s ongoing response to the crisis that began June 20, when the Archdiocese of New York announced it had deemed credible an allegation that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick sexually abused a teenager in the 1970s.
There are three prongs to the present crisis.
The first is that occasioned by McCarrick’s situation directly- the concern that a man alleged to have sexually coerced and abused two minors and several seminarians and priests was able to occupy prominent positions of ecclesial responsibility without intervention by Church authorities, even after he was the subject of legal settlements negotiated by dioceses in New Jersey. That concern was exacerbated by allegations raised by Pennsylvania’s grand jury report, which alleged that Wuerl, among others, did not sufficiently address or disclose allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct on the part of priests.
The second prong is the perception, which has been expressed broadly, that bishops have not sufficiently taken responsibility for the Church’s failure to act appropriately when faced with some allegations or evidence of sexual abuse or coercion; that they have called for new policies or procedures without sufficiently understanding the disappointment experienced by Catholics, or the desire for sincere expressions of contrition, even on behalf of bishops now retired or dead, and evidence, not of a policy solution, but of a moral resolve for change- what might be called a “firm purpose of amendment.”
The third prong is the emerging concern about sexual immorality among clerics and seminarians- the perception that, as one bishop put it, that there is a “homosexual subculture” among Catholic clerics, and that institutional tolerance for licentiousness has enabled would-be abusers or the sexually coercive to go unnoticed and unpunished. The idea that there is a decided “homosexual subculture” among priests and bishops is controversial- it is not universally held, and it is an idea that warrants further investigation- but it has become a focal point of attention in recent weeks.
The next Archbishop of Washington will be expected, fairly or not, to lead the charge in addressing those concerns, because he will be successor to Wuerl and McCarrick, and because he will be seen to have a mandate from Pope Francis to lead the Church in the United States out of this crisis.
The selection process for the appointment of a new bishop generally involves a country’s apostolic nuncio- the pope’s representative in civil and ecclesiastical affairs- along with the outgoing bishop of a diocese, the metropolitan archbishop of a region, the country’s cardinals, and finally, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the pope himself.
Identifying episcopal candidates is usually coordinated by the apostolic nuncio, who consults with bishops and other Catholic leaders when an appointment is pending, vets names, and prepares reports to be sent to the Congregation for Bishops. He usually gives special significance to the opinion of an outgoing bishop, and notes any other particular considerations.
When he has sent recommendations to the Vatican, they are considered by the members of the Congregation for Bishops, who meet regularly to consider open or soon-to-be open sees, and who prepare the terna, or list, of three candidates for each see, which is then sent to the pope for selection. Because the cardinal members of the congregation cannot be expected to know or understand every part of the world, members generally have the most significant influence on the nominations coming from their part of the world.
In ordinary times, Wuerl would be expected to play an outsize role in the appointment of his successor. He is the metropolitan archbishop of his ecclesiastical province, a cardinal, and one of two American members of the Congregation for Bishops, along with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.
But these are not ordinary times. It is not clear how much influence Wuerl will wield with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., or with the Congregation for Bishops itself. Sources in Rome and Washington say that Wuerl expects to play a significant role in the appointment of his successor, but there is no way of knowing how this will play out. If Wuerl’s role in the selection is limited, this will likely mean that Cupich, as the other American on the Congregation for Bishops, will play a more significant role than he otherwise might have, or that Pope Francis will make a personal selection based on some other criteria or some other consultation.
There has been speculation about who will succeed Wuerl since he submitted his resignation in 2015. Though this summer seems to have changed a great deal, at least in public perception, some of those who have been rumored to follow the cardinal are still likely in consideration, along with some other possibilities.
Bishop George Murry, SJ, has been long-rumored as among Wuerl’s own top choices for the Washington job. Murry, the Bishop of Youngstown, has a doctorate in history from George Washington University in DC, and has worked in Washington for other stints. Murry served a term as secretary to the USCCB, was personally appointed by Pope Francis to attend the 2015 Synod on the Family, and was appointed to chair a USCCB committee on racism established shortly after the 2017 Charlottesville riot.
In April 2018, however, Murry announced that he had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. He reports that the treatment is going well, but he reported beginning a third round of chemotherapy in mid-August, and, even if he had been seriously considered, it is likely that his health would not now permit him to take on the demanding job.
For almost a year, there has been a great deal of speculation that Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego would succeed Wuerl in Washington; a Vatican official told CNA last October that McElroy’s appointment was a strong possibility. McElroy is a Harvard graduate, and a historian with an interest in the Jesuit John Courtney Murray; he was a secretary, and later vicar general, to the late Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, before becoming an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco and then Bishop of San Diego in 2015.
McElroy is seen to be an outspoken, politically and theologically progressive bishop who is often said to represent some of Pope Francis’ intellectual currents. He is also said to be well regarded by Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was a longtime friend of McElroy’s friend and mentor, Archbishop Quinn.
McElroy, however, has recently faced controversy, after it was revealed that he was informed by psychotherapist Richard Sipe in 2016 of allegations that McCarrick was involved in sexually immoral behavior with seminarians. While McElroy said recently that he did not find Sipe to be credible, the controversy surrounding the report would likely be exacerbated if he were appointed to succeed Wuerl. Church watcher Rocco Palmo, for example, tweeted Aug. 10 that the revelation of Sipe’s report had “effectively imploded” the possibility that McElroy would be appointed to Washington.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington has also been among those rumored to be in consideration for the position. Coyne, originally a priest of Boston and a trained liturgist, became the Archdiocese of Boston’s spokesman in 2002, as it grappled with the fallout of the Boston Globe’s reporting of sexual abuse in that diocese. Coyne became an auxiliary bishop in Indianapolis in 2011, and led that diocese as apostolic administrator after the early retirement of Archbishop Daniel Buechlein. In 2014 he was appointed to lead Vermont’s sole Catholic diocese. Coyne was elected to a term as the USCCB’s communications committee chairman in 2014, which will conclude in November, and has often spoken in alignment with Cupich during USCCB’s deliberations. While those factors seem to favor the likelihood of his appointment, in question is whether Coyne’s close work and association with Cardinal Bernard Law, who left Boston in disgrace, would be considered a hindrance to his appointment in this sensitive environment.
Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has also been among those reported to be favored by Wuerl for the position. Wuerl himself served briefly as a kind of super-auxiliary in Seattle before being appointed Bishop of Pittsburgh; he was entrusted with broad swathes of governance in the diocese during the tumultuous period overseen by controversial Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Sartain, regarded as doctrinally orthodox and pastorally gifted, served a term as secretary to the USCCB, and was appointed in 2012 to oversee an apostolic visitation for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization for many religious communities of women in the U.S. He is generally regarded as having handled that difficult task with aplomb, and forming positive relationships on all sides of an investigation, that, but for his involvement, might have been considerably more tense.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, who now serves as USCCB secretary, has also been mentioned for the position. Aymond has led the U.S. bishops’ child protection and worship committees, and is regarded as moderate and administratively competent. However, the archbishop has faced criticism for his handling of some sexual abuse issues, especially a 1999 case in which Aymond, then an auxiliary bishop, was apparently made aware of an allegation of sexual abuse against a high school coach, but did not immediately remove him from his position. While Aymond apologized for his handling of the matter, it would likely raise a red flag regarding his appointment in Washington.
There are two other bishops who, if not already in consideration, might be in contention, in light of the fallout from the McCarrick scandal and the grand jury report.
The first is Archbishop Bernard Hebda, the Archbishop of Saint Paul-Minneapolis. Hebda, a canon and civil lawyer who previously worked in the Vatican, was Bishop of Gaylord from from 2009-2013, before becoming coadjutor bishop of Newark. Hebda was well-regarded among priests and laity in Newark, but in 2015 became apostolic administrator in Minneapolis, after the sudden resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt. In Minnesota, Hebda arranged legal settlements and navigated difficult waters as the archdiocese prepared for a bankruptcy filing. At the same time, he is said to have won the trust of his priests and begun a period of spiritual renewal in the archdiocese, after the long difficulty of a protracted and local sexual abuse crisis.
Hebda, generally regarded as doctrinally orthodox but moderate, is affable, friendly, and has the trust of clerics in many parts of the United States. And he has the reputation of a reformer. While he has been in Minneapolis only a short time, sources in DC and Rome say that his appointment to follow Washington would send a strong signal that Pope Francis is serious about reform efforts.
There is a also less prominent archbishop who might be under consideration: George Lucas of Omaha. Lucas is known as a relatively soft-spoken and talented administrator, doctrinally orthodox, personally moderate, and capable of generating interest in priestly vocations. But Lucas has considerable experience that would assist him in Washington.
Lucas became Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, in 1999. His predecessor, Bishop Daniel Ryan, had been accused of engaging in homosexual relationships with young men, priests, and prostitutes. In 2002, Ryan faced the allegation that he had solicited a teenage boy for sex in 1984. Reports of homosexual activity among Springfield’s priests was widespread- in 2004, a priest was severely beaten in a Springfield park, after he allegedly propositioned two young men for sex.
Lucas called for an independent investigation into the activities of the diocese, and of his own leadership, organized lay involvement in reforms, saw to it that priests accused of malfeasance were removed from ministry, managed the difficulty posed by predecessor, and initiated a renewal of confidence in diocesan leadership. Shortly after arriving in Omaha, he addressed another problematic organization, the Intercessors of the Lamb, a movement rife with organizational and managerial improprieties, eventually suppressing the organization in 2010.
Those experiences seem the right kind of preparation for addressing the broader crisis now facing the Church.
The Church will not quickly recover from the crisis it now faces. It will take time to identify and address the constellation of factors that have converged this summer. That process might also include an apostolic visitation from Rome, new mechanisms of accountability and lay leadership, and a period of serious prayer and sacrifice, as Catholics try to understand what has happened, and what that means about their trust in the Church.
Predicting episcopal appointments is usually an exercise in being wrong, and this analysis may be no exception. But one thing is clear: Healthy institutions depend on many factors, but the virtue of their leaders is one of them.
Canon law says that bishops must be “outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question.” As Pope Francis considers what to do about the crisis in the United States, that list will likely prove to be critical reading.