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.
In McCarrick’s case, there are allegations of ongoing, abusive behavior. But in past decades, harassment or sexual behavior between adults did not prompt nearly as much alarm compared with priest abuse of minors.
Even so, the sexuality of priests has been largely a third rail in the church, with little open acknowledgment of the issue.
So there is the question again: Is Wuerl in trouble (to the degree that he is in trouble with Rome) because of his role in the child-abuse scandal or the larger McCarrick scandals or both?
The new Washington Post story about Pope Francis accepting Wuerl’s resignation opens like this:
Pope Francis on Friday accepted the resignation of Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 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 as Wuerl becomes one of the highest-profile prelates to step down in a year of prominent abuse scandals, Pope Francis offered the cardinal a gentle landing, praising him in a letter and allowing him to stay on as the day-to-day administrator of the Washington archdiocese until a successor is found.
In his letter, Francis said that Wuerl’s “nobility” had prompted him to step down, even though he had “sufficient elements” to justify his actions.
“Of this, I am proud and thank you,” Francis wrote.
The Vatican’s announcement ended Wuerl’s 12-year tenure as archbishop of Washington, and marked the most direct consequence to date from a scalding August Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted decades of systemic sexual abuse within the church — some of it occurring in Pittsburgh, where Wuerl served as bishop.
Later on, there is a statement noting the importance of the “June suspension for child sex abuse of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s D.C. predecessor, which quickly led Catholics to wonder what Wuerl knew.”
The verdict: Child abuse alone. There’s no need to talk about McCarrick fooling around with seminarians or the decades or rumors about his private affairs that, well, never seemed to draw action from his brother cardinals or top Vatican officials (at least not in public).
This is strange, in light of the devastating material in that recent Post report about McCarrick and the “third rail” of clergy sexuality. Are there no ties between Wuerl and the previous occupant of this episcopal throne?
Now, if you read the long New York Times piece on Wuerl’s exit — with evidence that his power in Rome may actually increase — you’ll note precisely the same emphasis on one subject (child abuse), and the absence of the other (sex with seminarians).
This Times report is all about the old, old scandals, with zero interest in what did or did not happen with the protection of McCarrick. This is rather strange, since — as I mentioned earlier — it was the “Preyed on Men” story in the Times that turned up the heat under the McCarrick stories.
In conclusion, I also thought it was interesting that — while describing Wuerl’s sort-of fall — the new Post piece on Wuerl’s sort-of exit did not include this other very important story, linking the two cardinals.
Flashing back a few weeks, there was this lede:
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has said repeatedly that he didn’t know about years of sexual misconduct complaints involving his predecessor in the District, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was named in a 2005 settlement agreement that included allegations against McCarrick, according to the accuser in the case and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
What an interesting omission. Doesn’t the Post team want to note the importance of its own work on that McCarrick-Wuerl link?
Meanwhile, McCarrick is way, way out of sight in the vast expanse of West Kansas — 1,315 miles from the Washington Post newsroom.
Maybe that’s the overarching plan, for the men in red hats who owe “Uncle Ted” so much. But what’s up with the McCarrick-shaped-hole in many mainstream news stories, these days?
I do know this: Key players in Rome must be pleased.