Pope Francis wrote in a letter Friday that he accepted the Most Rev. Donald Wuerl’s resignation as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, and then appointed him to be apostolic administrator to the archdiocese.
Francis wrote in his letter that Wuerl is to serve as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese until the Pontiff appoints a new archbishop. He received Wuerl’s second offer for resignation Sept. 21.
“He [Wuerl] is no longer the [arch] bishop, but he is a bishop who is in charge of running the diocese until they get around to naming a new one,” said the Rev. John Beal, who teaches Canon Law at the Catholic University of America.
Wuerl’s resignation comes nearly three months after Pope Francis accepted Archdiocese of Washington Cardinal Emeritus Theodore McCarrick’s resignations from the College of Cardinals following allegations that he had sexually abused children in his early years as a priest. Then, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury claimed in a report that Wuerl, former Bishop of Pittsburgh, had covered up cases of priests abusing children and re-assigned the priests to new parishes if allegations cropped up, in addition to removing some priests accused of abuse. Wuerl asserted that when he reassigned priests as bishops, he had not seen allegations that had been made against them.
After Pope Francis accepted his resignation, Wuerl asked that his letter to the faithful be read to church congregations in the archdiocese at all Sunday Masses.
“I had the privilege of meeting with him [Pope Francis] to let him know of your pain, sadness and confusion from what has been revealed these past months,” Wuerl wrote. “With a heavy heart I said that I could no longer serve you in the way that you deserve. What is needed now is new leadership so that all of you, the faithful of this Church, can begin to focus on healing and the future.”
One thing Wuerl may not do as apostolic administrator, Beal said, is to select new pastors, because that would be a permanent change and would therefore affect the next archbishop of the archdiocese. The apostolic administrator may not do anything that would “tie the hands” of the incoming bishop.
Wuerl wrote to Pope Francis nearly three years ago when he was 75, asking if he could resign.
“The Holy Father’s decision to provide new leadership to the Archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future,” Wuerl wrote in a statement dated Oct. 12. “It permits this local church to move forward. Once again for any past errors in judgement [sic] I apologize and ask for pardon. My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you, the people of the Church of Washington.
For the Pope not to accept an archbishop’s resignation right away is common, Beal said.
“The popes have traditionally delayed the acceptance of the resignations of cardinals for several years, as long as they’re in good health; that’s just been the practice,” Beal said Tuesday.
The pope must name a successor. Selecting and appointing the next archbishop for the Archdiocese could take from months to more than a year. Wuerl is still a cardinal, which means he would help vote for the next Pope if Pope Francis either resigns or dies.
Wuerl is no longer the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, but he is still a bishop, said Beal. Therefore, he is still a priest who has the power to do what a priest or bishop would do – such as hear confessions, distribute Communion and administer the sacrament of Confirmation.
When Wuerl relocated from his position as bishop of Pittsburgh to the Archdiocese of Washington in 2006, he became an archbishop because Washington is an Archdiocese.
Many Catholic churches in Montgomery County are part of the Archdiocese of Washington.