ROME – Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the embattled archbishop of Washington DC, ending months of speculation about the fate of one of the most powerful officials in the United States Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican didn’t immediately name a new archbishop of Washington, but a church official familiar with the plan said Cardinal Donald Wuerl would continue to serve on an interim basis until a replacement is appointed.
The cardinal has faced widespread criticism since August, when a report documenting the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania by Catholic clergy was released.
Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years before coming to Washington in 2006, isn’t accused of sexual misconduct himself, but many Catholics say he didn’t do enough to root out abuse.
Wuerl has asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation on several occasions since the Pennsylvania report, but the pope has demurred until now, according to a church official with knowledge of the discussions.
Since August, parishioners have protested at Wuerl’s sermons and calls for his resignation have thundered cross social media. At a Labor Day meeting of clergy in his diocese, some of his own priests urged him to resign, though others urged him to stay in his post, according to people who were present.
Later in September, Wuerl wrote in a letter to his clergy that he would soon travel to Rome to discuss his resignation with Pope Francis.
As is required of bishops, Wuerl, 77, first turned in his resignation when he turned 75, but popes often allow bishops to stay on for up to five more years beyond the standard retirement age.
“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 said in a statement released on Friday. “It permits this local Church to move forward. Once again for any past errors in judgment, 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.”
Wuerl is now the second prominent US Church official to be brought down by the sex-abuse scandal this year. Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July, following allegations that he sexually abused an altar boy in the early 1970s. McCarrick has denied the allegation.
As the top Catholic official in the US capital, Wuerl has frequently interacted with political leaders. He has maintained good relationships with Democrats and Republicans and hasn’t been viewed within the church as particularly liberal or conservative on controversial issues.
Church officials said leading candidates to replace Wuerl include Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, New Jersey; Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, of Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Bishop Robert McElroy, of San Diego, California.
Both Tobin and McElroy, who are close allies of Pope Francis, are seen as political and theological liberals, and could butt heads with the Trump administration on issues such as immigration.