By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
DUBLIN – After facing intense scrutiny this week for his handling of sex abuse cases in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 1990s, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., has withdrawn from participating in next week’s World Meeting of Families in Ireland.
Wuerl, a close ally of Pope Francis, was slated to deliver a keynote address at the Vatican-organized family gathering, which takes place every three years.
His decision to withdraw, as first reported by the Irish Times on Saturday, comes just days after Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Mass., announced he would not be participating in a previously scheduled panel on child protection in order to oversee an internal investigation into abuse at St. John’s Seminary within his archdiocese.
The charges regarding Cardinal Wuerl’s record first surfaced in a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released on Tuesday, which detailed more than 300 cases of abuser priests and more than 1,000 victims dating back to 1947 in six of the eight dioceses within the state.
Wuerl, who served as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, has faced mounting criticism and even calls to resign.
Despite evidence that Cardinal Wuerl traveled to Rome at one point in protest over the reinstatement of a priest accused of abuse, the report also detailed that he allowed abuser priest Father Ernest Paone, ordained in 1957 and active until 2001, to be transferred despite a history of accusations beginning in the early 1960s.
The report highlighted correspondence between ecclesial authorities about Paone’s case, but none of them reported the piling accusations to civil law enforcement.
When Paone finally retired in 2001, nearly 41 years after the first accusation of sexual abuse had been brought forward, Wuerl, the report said, wrote a letter assuring the priest that “sustenance needs and benefits will continue according to the norms of law.”
In recent days, however, Wuerl has strongly defended his actions, maintaining that he “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
No formal reason for Cardinal Wuerl’s cancellation has been given to date, and organizers of the World Meeting of Families referred media inquiries to the Archdiocese of Washington. In response to a Crux inquiry, an archdiocesan spokesman declined to comment.
His address, “The Welfare of the Family is Decisive for the Future of the World,” was slated to be delivered on Wednesday during a Pastoral Congress.
The World Meeting of Families is set to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 22 and will continue through Aug. 26, with Pope Francis participating in the final two days of the event.
Given the recent fallout from the Grand Jury report – deemed a “moral catastrophe” by the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – and Ireland’s own recent history of clerical sex abuse, the issue is expected to loom large over the family gathering.
In all, the World Meeting of Families is expected to draw over 35,000 participants during the Congress and more than half a million attendees at the final Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park next Sunday.
There’s mounting expectations that Pope Francis will meet victims of clerical sexual abuse while he’s in Ireland, but one such prominent local survivor, Colm O’Gorman has been critical of any such meeting, referring to it on Twitter as an “afterthought.”
“It’s clear the church sees such meetings as ‘pastoral.’ Instead there should be meetings at which the pope, on behalf of the Vatican, listens and is properly accountable to victims.”
Cardinal Wuerl’s withdrawal, in tandem with Cardinal O’Malley’s, brings the number of cardinals slated to address the World Meeting of Families down to 13 from 15.