WASHINGTON - In an exclusive interview with FOX 5, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, sits down to discuss a grand jury report that alleges he systematically covered up and protected priests who sexually abused children in Pennsylvania.
The bombshell report said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — since the 1940s. The report also alleges senior church officials, such as Wuerl, systematically covered up the abuse and helped to protect the priests.
Wuerl was Pittsburgh's bishop and led the Pittsburgh diocese from 1988 to 2006.
In his first public comments since the report, Wuerl told his parishioners on Wednesday, “The pain and the suffering are something that we need to take responsibility for.”
Following his Wednesday service, Wuerl sat down one-on-one to talk with FOX 5’s Tom Fitzgerald about the troubling report and stated he would not resign from his post. In defending his actions, Wuerl has written to his own priests and issued statements arguing that the way the church deals with child sex abuse cases today differs from how it dealt with it years ago, calling it an “evolution.”
“My efforts from the time that I reached Pittsburgh onto today, I’ve tried to do my very best to deal with this whole question of allegations against a priest. Now, remember, we're dealing with a long spectrum of time so how we dealt with things in the late 80s and early 90s is different than the way we would today,” Wuerl said. “How do you deal with an allegation, and remember now when an allegation comes forward that allegation often times ends up being one word against another.”
The grand jury report names Wuerl over 200 times. All but two of the 1,000 cases are too old to be prosecuted. There are also three cases the report said Wuerl reassigned, reinstated or provided a monthly payment to accused pedophile priests. Rather than a systematic cover-up, Wuerl said the church’s action sprang from a desire to protect child victims, not as the grand jury says cover-up child sex abuse.
“I think I did everything that I possibly could,” he said. “One of the things that we did was that we put into place was a review board so there would be a way of looking into the allegations that would take it beyond just myself and my office looking at it.”
Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, has a different take. He said the church showed “complete disdain” for the victims.
“I think that's his take to say that we did nothing at all,” Wuerl said when pressed. “That's simply not verified with the facts.”
The report states the abuse ranged from groping and masturbation to anal, oral and vaginal rape. A 9-year-old boy was forced to perform oral sex and then had his mouth washed out with holy water, according to the report. Another boy was made to pose naked as if being crucified and then was photographed by a group of priests who Shapiro said produced and shared child pornography on church grounds.
The cardinal says no one can guarantee that child sex abuse will never occur in the Archdiocese of Washington or the Catholic church again but said reforms are making an impact on stopping the abuse. As for Catholics and the public outraged and sickened by this activity, Wuerl said he counted himself among them.
"Certainly, I'm speaking for myself now, it's the sense of sense of anger, the sense betrayal, the sense that we just have to be better at addressing this and then realizing that we are making steps forward,” Wuerl said.
While Wuerl said the church is making strides, the grand jury concluded that a succession of Catholic bishops and other diocesan leaders tried to shield the church from bad publicity and financial liability. They failed to report accused clergy to police and sent abusive priests to so-called "treatment facilities," which "laundered" the priests and "permitted hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry," the report said.
The grand jury's report comes at a time of renewed scrutiny and fresh scandal at the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church. Pope Francis stripped 88-year-old Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of his title and ordered him to a lifetime of prayer and penance amid allegations that McCarrick had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.