GAITHERSBURG — Days after being named in a report on the concealment of child abuse by clergy, Cardinal Donald Wuerl skipped a Mass he was scheduled to say on Sunday.
“It may be a last-minute change,” Washington Archdiocese spokesperson Chieko Noguchi said Friday.
The purpose of Wuerl’s Mass was to install St. John Neumann Parish’s new pastor, the Rev. Kevin Regan. The Most Rev. Michael Fisher, a new auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese and a Bethesda native, said the Sunday Mass instead of Wuerl.
On Aug. 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a redacted report on the handling of child abuse by clergy cases, which covered seven decades of records. It suggested that Wuerl, as a bishop in the state, and other church leaders knowingly covered up sexual abuse of children by clergy.
During his homily, or sermon, Fisher said the parish was in a bittersweet situation, conflicted between joy of welcoming a new pastor and sorrow over the Pennsylvania grand jury report on child abuse.
Fisher, who served as a priest at St. John Neumann in the late 1990s and the 2000s, recalled times that were painful for the parish.
“It was also here in the pulpit of St. John Neumann that in 2002, I had to get up and to try to lead us in some sense of healing over that, the news that had come out about child abuse and the clergy’s involvement in that,” Fisher told parishioners Sunday. “It was through that time that we tried our best to understand it, but there is no understanding it.”
Fisher said he remembered feeling angry when he spoke to the churchgoers about the child-abuse cases in 2002.
“How do we apologize for something like that?” he asked, recalling the scandal. “And now here we find ourselves in the same situation. Here we are, uncovering even more. There are, again, feelings of anger. I can only express my own heartfelt sorrow, as each one of our pastors are trying to do.”
Noguchi said she did not know the reason for switching who would say the Mass.
“A pastor installation can be done by an auxiliary bishop,” Noguchi said.
Noguchi confirmed that Wuerl continues to be Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Pennsylvania grand jury found out about 1,000 victims of more than 300 priests they identified in the report.
The grand jury wrote that Wuerl as a bishop had uprooted some “predator priests,” but he hid information about other “predator priests” from the public.
August 14, the day the report came out online, the Archdiocese of Washington posted a statement from Wuerl on its website.
“While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” Wuerl wrote.
Wuerl said he felt sorrow for the victims and called sex abuse of children by priests “tragic,” which was not a new message for him to deliver.
“As I have made clear throughout my more than 30 years as a bishop, the sexual abuse of children by some members of the Catholic Church is a terrible tragedy,” he said.
According to the report, some cases of abuse lasted three or more years.
“The Church can never express enough our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely,” Wuerl continued.
Pope Francis, the international head of the Catholic Church, on Monday acknowledged in a letter to “The People of God” to acknowledge the abuse that occurred by priests.
“It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable,” wrote the Pontiff. “Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.”
The grand jury identified more than 300 “predator priests,” based on documents from Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. The grand jury wrote that it found cases for 1,000 victims. Attorney Robert J. Ridge, representing the Diocese of Pittsburgh, outlined the steps the diocese had taken to respond to child sexual abuse, as requested by the grand jury.
Ridge wrote that some of the priests the grand jury had listed as offenders are currently in active ministry because the diocese did not find evidence to prove the allegations of child sexual abuse had merit.
“Given that there is an appeal before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, we are not now able to offer clarifications,” said Ridge, about these priests in active ministry.
The grand jury wrote that Wuerl allowed the Rev. Earnest Paone (who died in 2012) to transfer from the Diocese of Pittsburgh to another diocese in 1991, despite a complaint that Paone had abused children. However, Ridge said Wuerl and others in the Clergy Office were not aware of the allegations of abuse against Paone at the time.
Paone had been placed on “indefinite leave of absence” in 1966 due to allegations that he abused children. He requested a letter from Wuerl in 1991 telling then-Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Diocese of Las Vegas he approved of Paone being a priest there.
“Our research indicates that because he had been outside the diocese for nearly 30 years, Paone’s files were not located in the usual clergy personnel file cabinet,” Ridge wrote. “This earlier handling of Paone’s records was a failure of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and the Paone case would certainly not be handled in the same manner today.”
The Diocese of Pittsburgh received a second compliant against Paone in 1994. The secretary for the Clergy Office told the Diocese of San Diego in 1996 that Paone’s faculties as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh had been taken away.
Ridge apologized on behalf of the predator priests and of the Pittsburgh Diocese.
“The Diocese of Pittsburgh acknowledges the sad history recounted in the Grand Jury Report, both of the abuse that occurred at the hands of priests and the failure, at times, of leaders in the Church to respond with [the] compassion and care that is the standard today,” Ridge wrote. “For the harm inflicted by these actions we again apologize to the victims who suffered the abuse, to their families and loved ones who have shared their burdens and have supported them with love and encouragement, and to anyone whose faith and trust in God or in the Church has been shaken.”
News of the scrutiny of Wuerl’s handling of child-abuse cases in the Pennsylvania grand jury report comes within a couple of months of Pope Francis’s barring Wuerl’s predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, from saying Masses and performing other public ministries, due to credible allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused children in the past.
Noguchi said Wuerl and Fisher each said they did not want to be interviewed for this story.
Noguchi said the Archdiocese of Washington is separate from the grand jury report, because the report describes the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Wuerl’s role in it when he served there, but does not discuss the Archdiocese of Washington.
Noguchi said the Archdiocese of Washington leadership protects children from sexual abuse through training and background checks of people who would come into contact with children.
“The Archdiocese of Washington has been, and continues to be, committed to keeping children safe and to bringing healing to those harmed,” Noguchi said. “We conduct thorough background checks on individuals who have substantial contact with children and vulnerable adults – this includes priests, deacons, catechists, teachers, and also volunteers who wish to work with children in our schools and parishes.”