Interviewing Cardinal Wuerl on McCarrick: Can't WTOP and others do better?

The latest news in the Cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal makes some reporters look particularly clueless.

 On Saturday, McCarrick became the first cardinal in history to resign from the College of Cardinals over the priestly sex abuse crisis, which means he no longer wears the red hat.

Obviously, a lot of scribes were pulled in their newsrooms on their days off to do the story or weekend reporters had to fill in. Crux's John Allen worded it the best

It’s really not that often one can say with certainty that we witnessed history being made at a specific moment, but Saturday brought such an occasion with a Vatican announcement that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals.
It’s an unprecedented move in the United States, the first time an American cardinal has ever renounced his red hat, and it’s the first time anywhere in the world has exited the college altogether facing accusations of sexual abuse. It is, therefore, the most tangible confirmation to date from Francis that when he says “zero tolerance,” he means everybody.

One of the weirder press reports came from WTOP, a Washington, D.C. news station.

Naturally, the outlet wanted some comment from the current head of the Washington archdiocese. What it got were bland quotes like this:

“I think this was a big step forward in trying to act quickly, decisively, even though the whole procedure isn’t concluded yet,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl who succeeded McCarrick as the Archbishop of Washington. “The pope is saying that we need to show that we are hearing these things, paying attention and acting.”

Oddly, I could not find any video of Wuerl’s remarks on WTOP’s site, so I could not tell if he answered all the questions he was asked or whether he dodged any.

“This decision highlights for me … that the pope takes very seriously the allegation of an abuse of a minor,” added Wuerl. He said both McCarrick’s resignation and the pope’s acceptance of it mean that “if we’re moving forward, these are signs of that progress.”
Wuerl said he has never been approached with allegations of abuse by McCarrick and was unaware of the rumors that have been associated with his predecessor.

What? Seriously? I can’t believe any reporter let him get away with that statement. This mess has been going on for more than a month and Cardinal Wuerl has yet to give a press conference about it. History's being made here and Wuerl's now camera shy?

I can possibly buy the first part of that sentence in that the dioceses that were approached were Metuchen and Newark. McCarrick hopefully ceased his sexual activity after becoming archbishop of Washington in 2000. 

But the second part? That he didn’t know what the rumors were? He didn't know about any financial settlements? And "abuse of a minor"? How about the reports about the abuse of seminarians?

Please. I was following up on the rumors and I was hardly a major player in Catholic circles. But I was the religion editor for the Washington Times; I covered the archdiocese from 2003 to 2010 and I'm the person folks came to when there was dirt to be found. My rule of thumb is this: If local reporters have heard of it, then everyone who matters also knows.

Remember, Wuerl is the same guy who fought the Vatican back in 1993 when it wanted him to reinstate an abusive priest in the Pittsburgh diocese where Wuerl then served as bishop. He certainly knew all the local sex abuse rumors back then. 

Wuerl has obviously felt a lot of heat on the McCarrick affair, as he has been proclaiming his ignorance of the matter elsewhere, according to the Catholic News Agency

Washington D.C., Jul 28, 2018 / 09:54 am (CNA) -- A letter sent this week to priests of the Archdiocese of Washington claims that Cardinal Donald Wuerl did not know until recently about settlements made by two New Jersey dioceses in response to allegations misconduct on the part of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
"Neither the Archdiocese of Washington nor Cardinal Wuerl knew about these confidential settlements until this most recent credible and substantiated allegation against Cardinal McCarrick was made public," said the July 25 letter, sent to Washington priests by archdiocesan vicar general Monsignor Charles Antonicelli.

Yeah, and sell me a bridge in Brooklyn. I’m curious why Wuerl didn’t give that WTOP interview to religion beat professionals like the team at the Washington Post who wrote this on Saturday and no doubt would love to grill Wuerl on how he could profess ignorance of McCarrick’s background when past and present bishops all over the East Coast knew of it.

As tmatt noted on Saturday, Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, says the Catholic Church needs an inquest on who knew what about McCarrick and when they knew it, maybe starting in the mid-1980s. That's when the sexual activity at McCarrick’s infamous beach house in Sea Girt, N.J., and a fishing camp in upstate New York was quite intense. Rumors about what went on at the former were so weird, a Vatican rep privately ordered him to sell it. I cannot believe that while the Vatican knew about this man, the Washington archdiocese did not?  

As to who else knew what and when, I found a column in the Kansas City Star by Melinda Hennenberger, who used to move in East Coast media circles. She wrote about how she is probably one of the last journalists in the country who didn’t know about McCarrick.

Supposedly, no one in the chancery in Washington ever knew that just a few years later, in 2005 and again in 2007, two dioceses back in New Jersey paid settlements to two former seminarians who’d accused him of abusing them there in the past.
Someone I think a lot of certainly believes that: “That people looked the other way is not true; no one came forward,” said McCarrick’s devastated former spokeswoman at the archdiocese, Susan Gibbs, my friend and my daughter’s confirmation sponsor. She cried as we talked, not for either him or herself, but because of the damage he’s done to victims who include people still in the pews. “He took them through the crisis, and they feel betrayed.” If the church awarded Purple Hearts, she’d have several.

But people did come forward. There was that group of concerned Catholic laity that traveled to Rome sometime before 2000, begging that McCarrick not be named cardinal because of his past.

There’s a stack of documents that I –- and several other reporters -– have from Greg Littleton, a former seminarian who wrote  how he was fondled by McCarrick and relentlessly pursued for sex. This seminarian fought him off, then returned a decade later to receive a settlement. So did Robert Ciolek, another former seminarian whose story was told by the New York Times

These two men were getting $80,000 and $100,000 settlements in 2005 and 2007 from two New Jersey dioceses concerning the ecclestiastical head of the Washington archdiocese and no one thought to inform Wuerl? 

Looking back, there were signs, Hennenberger writes.

“ … for those of us who lived through the horror of the clerical sex abuse scandals in 2002, (we) were so grateful that at least one American cardinal seemed to understand the depth and urgency of the problem.
Yes, that man was Ted McCarrick, someone I interviewed a number of times at the height of the scandals in my job as Rome correspondent for The New York Times. While too many other church leaders were still denying, deflecting, minimizing and blaming the media, he was the first to speak about a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for new cases of abuse by priests.
“Anyone in the future who would do something like that to a child or a youngster, then that is it,” he told me and other reporters.
But wait -- was the key phrase in that sentence “in the future”?

Most of the news reports on Saturday repeated the same old same old, although the New York Times for the first time quoted the 62-year-old man whose report of being abused by McCarrick at the age of 16 started it all.

“I am kind of appalled that it has taken this long for him to get caught,” he said, in the first time he has spoken publicly. “But I am glad I am the first one that could open the door to other people.”

Reporters must not give Wuerl a pass on this. I can understand how maybe, just maybe in 2006, when he was made archbishop of Washington, he might not have known the specifics on McCarrick. But not knowing the rumors after 12 years? This is a man who's known as a power player in the Vatican. You think the folks over there just forgot to tell him about McCarrick?

Some outlets, like the National Catholic Reporter, make the case that Wuerl honestly did not know. So we have a few possibilities there: He is either lying, he's amazingly disconnected from his own archdiocese; heads of other dioceses conspired to not tell him the truth; and Wuerl chose not to ask too many questions or he has no sources in Rome. The last possibility is certainly not true. So wherever the truth may lie, something's not right in Washington.

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