The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Possible Law successor decries secrecy

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/29/2003

NEW HAVEN -- Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, widely considered a strong candidate to be the next archbishop of Boston, said yesterday the clergy sex abuse scandal was largely caused by the culture of secrecy within the church and he advocates greater openness, not fundamental change, as the solution to the crisis.

Speaking to a conference at Yale University, Wuerl acknowledged that his own future is the subject of much discussion. Many church-watchers and clergy contend the 62-year-old Pittsburgh native will be the next archbishop of Boston or Philadelphia because of his training in Rome, relationship with the pope, doctrinal conservatism, pastoral skills, and strong record on ousting sexually abusive priests.

''I would be quite happy with remaining right where I am, and not having to contemplate that that wouldn't be the right order of things,'' he told an audience gathered for a conference on ''Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Church.''

Asked later what he meant, Wuerl declined to talk further about his future, saying ''it's all speculation.''

In a 60-minute address at Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center in New Haven, Wuerl made it quite clear that he does not see structural change as the solution to the church crisis. He referred to the church as ''a divinely established reality'' and said ''the hierarchy and the apostolic tradition are intrinsic to the church.'' He spoke derisively of an unspecified Protestant denomination he said allowed congregations to vote on whether or not to accept Jesus, and contended that it would be a mistake to attempt to shape the church in the image of political institutions. He warned against allowing the news media or interest groups to shape the church.

''While stockholders in a corporation may have the ultimate authority over the structure of the corporation itself, and while in a democracy sovereignty rests with the majority . . . neither of these models serves when we address the nature and function of the church,'' Wuerl said. ''We must be careful not to use a political model for a reality that transcends political institutions.''

In the church, he said, ''we do not vote or take a head count to determine what we should believe or how the church should be structured.''

What does need to change, Wuerl argued, is the secrecy that has cloaked many church decisions. ''The answer is openness,'' he said, ''sharing information . . . and accepting the critique of others.''

He called for the greater involvement of laypeople. Wuerl said the church should look to the consultative bodies already in place, such as finance and pastoral councils, to involve laypeople in a role that he described as ''consultative'' and ''advisory.''

Wuerl, who said he consulted with 10,000 laypeople who served on various committees before closing a number of churches in Pittsburgh, said ''much of the origin of the recent scandal . . . is rooted in the secrecy and confidentiality surrounding not only the sexual crime itself, but the lack of information involved in transferring priests to an assignment.''

Several times Wuerl warned against the role of the news media and interest groups in shaping the church.

''We've all learned that in the collaborative process, information sharing, consultation, consensus building, can all be rendered meaningless if we give in to pressure groups, whether media driven or driven by any other purpose,'' he said at one point. He also declared that ''appeals to media or special-interest groups to bring pressure are really inappropriate for a faith community.''

The most distinguishing item on Wuerl's rsum, given the crisis that has riven the Boston Archdiocese and the American Catholic Church, is that he fought and won a lengthy battle with the Vatican over his decision to oust an allegedly abusive priest popular among the church's conservative wing.

That confrontation began in 1993, when the Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to reinstate the Rev. Anthony Cipolla, whom Wuerl had removed after the priest was accused of molesting a teenage boy. The Vatican court, in a decision obtained by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, declared that the Saint Luke Institute, where Wuerl had sent Cipolla for evaluation, was ''founded by a priest who is openly homosexual and based on a mixed doctrine of Freudian pansexualism and behaviorism, [and] is surely not a suitable institution apt to judge rightly about the beliefs and the lifestyle of a Catholic priest.''

Wuerl challenged the Vatican court, and two years later, the it reversed itself. And Wuerl has removed abusive priests from the ministry, a practice he began nearly 15 years before the US Conference of Catholic Bishops made such a step mandatory.

Several things make him a likely candidate for archbishop in Boston. He has served as a bishop in two dioceses, Seattle and Pittsburgh. He is old enough, 62, to be seasoned, but young enough that he could make a significant mark before he is required to retire at age 75.

He has also studied and worked in Rome -- often an important criterion for successful bishops. He is reportedly close to Pope John Paul II.

''Bishop Wuerl is certainly a possibility if he is not being groomed for Philadelphia,'' said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. ''He is known to the Vatican, very loyal to the Holy See, and an experienced administrator.''

Wuerl has a nationally syndicated television program, ''The Teaching of Christ''; has published numerous books, including an adult catechism; and is a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, his hometown.

Boston has been without an archbishop since Dec. 13, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned over criticism of his failure to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry. Bishop Richard G. Lennon is serving as interim administrator of the archdiocese, and Pope John Paul II has given no indication of when he intends to name a new archbishop.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/29/2003.
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