Cardinal Donald Wuerl

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

The body blows just keep coming.

That’s how many Catholics — on both left and right — have to feel right now, after the daily meteor shower of news about falling stars in their church. All of this was, logically enough, the backdrop to the very open-ended, wide-ranging discussions in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast” (click here to tune that in).

One minute, and it’s new revelations linked to the wide, wide world of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. In the latest chapter of this drama, there were revelations at the Catholic News Agency and in the Washington Post that — forget all of his previous denials — Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl did know about the rumors swirling around McCarrick and his abusive relationships with boys and seminarians.

Want to guess which of these newsrooms dared to note that this fact was a key element of the infamous expose letters released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? You got it. It was a branch of the alternative Catholic press (must-read Clemente Lisi post here) connecting those controversial dots — again.

Then, on the other doctrinal side of the fence, there were the revelations about Father C.J. McCloskey, a popular conservative apologist from Opus Dei. Here’s how Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org opened a post entitled “A bad day’s lament.”

Yesterday was “one of those days” — a day that found me hating my work, wishing I had some other sort of job.

The first blow, and by far the worst, came with the news, released by the Washington PostMonday evening, that an old friend, Father C. J. McCloskey, had been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a married woman, and that Opus Dei, of which I was once a member, had (not to put too fine a point on it) botched the handling of his case. Father McCloskey has done great things for the Catholic Church, drawing many converts to the faith and encouraging many cradle Catholics like myself to deepen their spiritual lives. The charges against him, however, reinforce my fear that every “celebrity priest” is vulnerable to special temptations, and just one misstep away from scandal. …

But long ago I resolved that I want to hear all the truth, good and bad. It will be a painful process, exposing all the rot within our Church. But it’s the only way to begin the necessary process of reform.

All of this left me thinking about a question that I hear — year after year, decade after decade — whenever I have private meetings with clergy and religious leaders.

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Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Once again, the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal dominates the headlines.

From the Washington Post to the New York Times to Commonwealth, the story that won't go away keeps making mainstream news.

And yes, various angles show up in this week's Friday Five.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reported Thursday that despite past denials, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl knew of sexual misconduct allegations against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and reported them to the Vatican.

Catholic News Agency, which broke the news, includes a name that is crucial to the wider story: Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Look for more GetReligion analysis of this important development in the coming days.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Yet another Washington Post story on a major angle in the scandal was the focus of our No. 1 most-clicked commentary of the week.

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Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

When I was breaking into the mainstream religion-news biz — soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust — the words “church press” basically meant one thing.

It meant working for the news office in a denomination’s headquarters or, perhaps, in the outreach office of a religious non-profit. In other words, it was one step from the world of public relations.

As the old saying goes: It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.

However, the Internet has — year after year — been blurring many of these lines. The denominational press is still out there, but so are lots of non-profit publications that offer an often dizzying mix of commentary and factual news.

This is especially true for reporters covering Catholic news. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted the other day, referring to developments on scandals surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick:

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here.

Yes, he stressed developments on the pro-Catechism side of Catholic life. Why? Well, there has always been a lively market for Catholic news and commentary coming from the doctrinal, cultural and, yes, political left. The assumption was that official Catholic news offices would be defending the doctrinal fort.

This is no longer a safe assumption. Take a look, for example, at that “trusted” list of Catholic news outlets (at the top of this post), produced the other day by Father Thomas Rosica, head of the Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. Notice any patterns in this list? Any obvious holes?

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As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

So, how good was the news coverage of the very gentle fall of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in terms of the stories published in the two elite newspapers that have been driving this story?

Well, that depends.

It appears that the crucial issue — once again — is whether the most important scandal linked to Wuerl at the the moment is (a) his role in efforts to hide the abuse of children and teens, overwhelmingly male, by clergy, (b) his ties to the career and work of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick or (c) some combination of both, since they are often connected.

If you think the big story is still clergy sexual abuse — as suggested by everything Rome is saying these days — then reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post are just fine. However, if you think that Wuerl could/should be numbered among the cardinals who drew power from McCarrick and then protected him from public scandal, then you will see some very large and interesting holes in these reports.

But first, let’s back up. In addition to waves of coverage of the hellish 900-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sexual abuse, here is the lightning-strike Times headline that really kicked this summer’s Catholic chaos up several notches. I am referring to this: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.”

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, the big word in this specific piece is “seminarians” — as in reports of McCarrick’s ongoing sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians under his authority.

The sex-with-trapped-men angle vanished, for the most part, in most news coverage. Then the Post came out with a story that I took a look at right here: “Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?“ The story’s strong thesis statement said:

The McCarrick case reveals, among other things, the unspoken contradictions between the image of priests as completely celibate and the reality of men struggling at times with their sexuality. Some experts and clerics compared priests’ celibacy vows to those of married couples who become unfaithful. In other words, physical or sexual contact between priests happens. But it’s unclear how frequently it occurs and how often it is nonconsensual.

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Friday Five: Wuerl resignation, freed American pastor, Tebow's J-word, Texas accused, Mormon identity

Friday Five: Wuerl resignation, freed American pastor, Tebow's J-word, Texas accused, Mormon identity

Among the religion news breaking today: Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.

As the Washington Post reports, Wuerl is a “trusted papal ally who became a symbol among many Catholics for what they regard as the church’s defensive and weak response to clerical sex abuse.”

But even in letting Wuerl go, Francis offered him a “soft landing,” as the Post described it.

Stay tuned for more GetReligion analysis of media coverage of that big story.

Another major religion story today: American pastor Andrew Brunson has been released after being detained for two years in Turkey, as Christianity Today reports. Look for more commentary on that news, too.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Tim Funk’s exceptional Charlotte Observer deep dive into the sordid history of a North Carolina pedophile — a former United Methodist pastor — is my pick for must-read Godbeat story this week.

As I noted in a post earlier this week, Funk’s 5,000-word report “is both conversational in tone and multilayered in terms of the depth of information provided.”

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Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

This weekend’s think piece is two think pieces in one.

As a bonus, I think I have found a foolproof way to determine how editors of a given publication have answered the crucial question: What is the decades-old Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal all about?

Well, let me qualify that a bit: This journalistic test that I am proposing works really well with the drama surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, since he has been accused of several different kinds of sexual abuse with males of different ages.

The editorial test: Search an article for the word “seminary” or variations on that term.

Let’s start with the Atlantic essay that ran with this headline: “The Sex-Abuse Scandal Is Growing Faster Than the Church Can Contain It.” Here’s a sample of the language:

“Many strands are coming together,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It does seem like we are reaching a watershed moment.” By Thursday, there had been so many new developments that she said she was having a hard time keeping up — and that the leaders at the Vatican probably were, too. “I think they’re scrambling. The news is coming on so many fronts. I think they don’t know quite what to do.” Here is some of what they nevertheless did this week.


The article does mention the controversial public testimony published by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, without really getting into the details other than to its call for Pope Francis to resign.

There is another summary statement later:

Pope Francis on Wednesday summoned bishops from around the world to a first-of-its-kind meeting in Rome in February. The focus will be on protecting minors, and bishops will reportedly receive training in identifying abuse, intervening, and listening to victims.

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Three months in, more newsrooms need to get serious about Catholic sex abuse coverage

Three months in, more newsrooms need to get serious about Catholic sex abuse coverage

As of today, we’re moving into the fourth month of Cardinal-gate or whatever one wants to call the flood of revelations, regrets, resignations and just plain revulsion over the re-awakened sex abuse crisis.

Reporting on the first phase of this crescendo of bad news started kind of slowly in June as news of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s penchant for finding sex partners among his seminarians started leaking out. During that first month, only the New York Times and the Washington Post did much of anything on it and then mostly by their religion and-or Vatican reporters.

Fast forward to this recent Post piece, by an investigative team designated to look into the actions of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Yes, there should have been a team put on the case way before this, but better late than never. You can tell that news executives are taking a story seriously when they start throwing staff at it.

A dozen years before he became a top leader in the Catholic Church, Donald Wuerl was weighing a fateful decision. It was 1994, and Wuerl, then a bishop, had removed a priest accused of child sex abuse from a Pittsburgh-area parish. But the priest refused to get psychiatric treatment, and instead asked Wuerl for time off…

The case, one of hundreds mentioned in a groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report released last month, sheds light on how Wuerl handled sex abuse claims in the Pittsburgh Diocese from 1988 to 2006 — a period that now threatens to rewrite his legacy and hasten the end of his career. Wuerl, 77, announced recently that he would go to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Pope Francis, and although it is not clear when that meeting will take place, Wuerl is scheduled to be in Rome this weekend.

While Wuerl built a reputation as an early advocate for removing pedophile priests from parishes, a Post examination found that at times he allowed accused clerics to continue as priests in less visible roles without alerting authorities or other officials. The review focused on the 25 priests whose cases, according to the grand jury, Wuerl handled directly.

The grand jury report is what moved reporting from just the religion team on these two papers to a much broader newsroom effort with more resources. There’s good solid reporting in the Post piece. And how can one ignore news like what Vox.com said about eight states taking up investigations into hidden clerical abuse within their borders?

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Monday Mix: Botham Jean, 'nones' in politics, Catholics demand change, black women and more

Monday Mix: Botham Jean, 'nones' in politics, Catholics demand change, black women and more

After taking off last week for Labor Day, we're back with another edition of the Monday Mix.

For those needing a refresher on this new GetReligion feature, we focus in this space on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

We'll mention this again, too: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "We will be a better city once we know the truth and once we come together and heal." The Dallas Morning News is providing in-depth coverage of the police-involved killing of Botham Jean, 26, a black man shot by a white officer who entered his apartment after mistaking it for her own.

That coverage includes the strong religion angle, as Jean was a beloved church song leader and Bible class teacher.

I ran into Morning News journalists both Saturday and Sunday at the Dallas West Church of Christ as I reported the story for The Christian Chronicle. In fact, the Dallas paper's photographer — in his first week on the job — confused me for his own reporter. We both enjoyed a chuckle over that while covering this terrible tragedy.

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Vatican officials keep asking journalists to investigate them, but do they mean it?

Vatican officials keep asking journalists to investigate them, but do they mean it?

For all of you following the continuing drama that is the U.S. Catholic Church these days, another telling moment happened on Sunday. The networks were taping Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s sermon yesterday at Annunciation Catholic Church in the District when Wuerl asked for loyalty to Pope Francis, as "increasingly it is clear that he is the object of considerable animosity."

This was all too much for one parishioner, who stood up and yelled, “Shame on you!” The video appears atop this blog.

To dismiss all the recent ferment as “animosity” toward Francis begs the question of what happened to stoke that animosity. Despite the crisis his archdiocese has been in for two months and running, Wuerl is still tone deaf to why people are so mad.

It’s not just the laity who are upset. There's the fact that Catholic priests who are tipping off journalists. These clerics are giving them tips and sharing anecdotes and ideas on how to best investigate this crisis. They are the frontline guys in this drama who dare not say anything publicly, but can leak stuff to those of us who can. They know a lot. They’ve seen things, heard things. I’ve heard from a few and, at this stage in my career, I’m a bit player in this drama.

That’s why the religion beat is so focused on good sources: Who you know and where they stand. Because unlike government documents, church records typically are not subject to public records laws. So when you want to peer into a religion’s finance records or anything else, you rely on insiders to slip them to you. As tmatt has been saying for a week, it's really crucial for reporters to find documents, documents, documents.

But Pope Francis isn't going to hand them to us, even though he has invited journalists to investigate the Viganò allegations. But are we going to get to see all the files on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at the apostolic nunciature in Washington DC? Or have they already been shipped to safety in Rome?

The pope appears to give us that clearance. Remember what he said on the plane from Ireland to Italy on Aug. 26:

Read the statement carefully yourselves and make your own judgment. I am not going to say a word about this. I believe that the statement speaks for itself, and you all have sufficient journalistic ability to draw conclusions.

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