NOEL KING, HOST:
Pope Francis today accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C. Wuerl is accused of being complicit in covering up years of sexual abuse by priests when he served as a bishop in Pittsburgh. Joining me now is Joshua McElwee, a journalist with the National Catholic Reporter. Good morning.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Good morning.
KING: Did the pope's decision to accept this resignation comes as a surprise?
MCELWEE: No. We had been expecting for some weeks now that Cardinal Wuerl had said he was coming to Rome, was going to ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation for the good of the church in Washington so that it could move forward. What did come as a bit of a surprise is that the Washington archdiocese also released a letter from the pope to Cardinal Wuerl basically portraying the decision the pope made as one that was made reluctantly. The pope said that Cardinal Wuerl had the heart of a pastor and could have defended himself more but that the pope was allowing him to resign basically to allow the church in Washington to move forward and to look for a new bishop after these revelations had come forward.
KING: All right. This is very interesting because there was a report released in August about decades of sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania. What was Wuerl accused of, exactly?
MCELWEE: Yeah. So the grand jury report that came out examined Wuerl's history as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. And while the report did acknowledge that Wuerl had really, in one case, particularly, had fought the Vatican to make sure that one priest who was accused of abuse stayed out of ministry, it examined other cases where it said he could have done more. Wuerl has rebutted that, saying that he did the best he could at the time, he really tried to protect children. But abuse survivors have said he could have done more. He could have - especially in three of the priests' cases - kept them away from ministry or told the people in Pittsburgh what was going on. Wuerl says that he was fighting the Vatican on the one case and was trying to get clearer authority over what he could and could not do at the time.
KING: All right. So accusations he could have done more. As archbishop of Washington, D.C., this is a very influential man. How have these allegations affected him?
MCELWEE: Well, Wuerl has really been one of the most powerful figures in the U.S. Catholic Church for the past 30 or 40 years. He's been in positions of power since the mid-'70s. He knew Pope John Paul II personally, who appointed him as bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988. And so we're kind of seeing a passing of an era of one of the figures of the U.S. Catholic Church who's been influential in many conversations. And it almost seems as if we're going to wait to see who might be taking his place and who might kind of be taking up that mantle as one of the most influential figures in the U.S. church.
KING: Is there a prospect that Cardinal Wuerl might face legal action as we move forward?
MCELWEE: I haven't been aware of anything like that. This is, of course, not - the accusations don't involve anything including abuse by Wuerl himself, but just questions of how he handled priests in the early '90s after the release of this grand jury report on August 14.
KING: Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. Joshua, thank you so much.
MCELWEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.