By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – Despite persistent denials that he was unaware of allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, both the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Pittsburgh have confirmed that Cardinal Donald Wuerl was aware of sexual misconduct allegations related to McCarrick and that he took steps to inform the Vatican of them.
As reported by the Washington Post on Thursday, in 2004, Wuerl sent a letter to then-Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo about the case of Robert Ciolek, a former priest who is a now a married lawyer in New Jersey. In 2005, Ciolek reached a settlement with the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, both in New Jersey.
The settlement resulted from sexual harassment complaints against McCarrick while he was seminarian, but as revealed on Thursday, Ciolek also had filed a complaint to the Diocese of Pittsburgh detailing harassment from one of its priests who was assigned to the faculty of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, where Ciolek was studying.
Cardinal Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh, from 1988 to 2006, was notified of those claims and wrote a letter informing the Vatican of the situation.
In a statement on Thursday, the Archdiocese of Washington said, “at that time, the Archdiocese understands that Mr. Ciolek requested confidentiality.”
The statement said that Cardinal Wuerl also removed the accused priest from ministry, and “and the Archdiocese understands that Mr. Ciolek also expressed his gratitude with how the Diocese of Pittsburgh handled his allegations.”
Since allegations against McCarrick first came to light in June 2018, beginning first with the case of a former altar boy who alleged that he was abused by McCarrick while he was then a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, the former cardinal has become synonymous with the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States.
Following the June revelations, multiple reports of McCarrick sexually harassing seminarians have come to light, and the Vatican is now investigating two other cases of alleged abuse against minors. In July, Pope Francis took the unusual step of accepting McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals.
During this time, however, Cardinal Wuerl has repeatedly denied that he was aware of past complaints against McCarrick, whom he succeeded as archbishop of Washington in 2006.
In a July 2018 interview with the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Wuerl said., “In the past month, I have seen some of those new public reports. But in my years here in Washington and even before that, I had not heard them. With rumors – especially old rumors going back 30, 40, even 50 years – there is not much we can do unless people come forward to share what they know or what they experienced.”
Ciolek told the Post that while he was grateful for Cardinal Wuerl’s proper handling of the case during his time in Pittsburgh, it was his denials in recent months that led him to come forward to tell his story.
“It’s belittling to me as a victim of abuse to have him as a priest and leader of the church to overlook, ignore or lie about what he knows I shared. It’s just beyond disrespectful in terms of what he signals to me when he says those things,” he told the Post.
The Archdiocese of Washington said that Cardinal Wuerl did not intend to be “imprecise” with his statements and were only addressing rumors of the abuse of minors.
In recent weeks, Ciolek had sought to meet with Cardinal Wuerl to discuss the matter, however, he told the Post the archdiocese sought to put restrictions on the meeting, including limiting him from taking notes or asking questions.
Ciolek, who reviewed his files from the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2018 after the McCarrick scandal first came to light, told the Post, that “Reading the document, I felt Cardinal Wuerl did the right thing. But that good feeling of what he had done has been overshadowed completely by his lying about his knowledge of that.”
In October 2018, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation as archbishop of Washington following scrutiny of his handling of sexual abuse cases in the diocese of Pittsburgh that came to light after the publication of the August 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report into the handling of abuse cases by the state’s six Catholic dioceses.
Cardinal Wuerl is presently serving as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of Washington until a successor is named by Pope Francis – a decision that is likely to come within the next month.