The Vatican has called the sex abuse described in a grand jury report in Pennsylvania "criminal and morally reprehensible."
The grand jury on Tuesday released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.
In a statement released late Thursday, Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said "those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and faith."
The statement stressed the "need to comply" with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors and said Pope Francis understands how "these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers" and that he wanted to "root out this tragic horror."
The scathing grand jury report this week accused Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
Wuerl is also facing widespread skepticism over his recent insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, his predecessor in the nation's capital.
The Washington Archdiocese, home to more than 630,000 Catholics, is considered an important power centre for the church in the United States, and Wuerl has been ranked by commentators as one of the most influential of the 10 active American cardinals.
A scathing grand jury report this week accused Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Demands for dismissal
The two scandals represent a stunning turn for the 77-year-old leader, who over the decades earned the respect of fellow bishops across the U.S. and prided himself in taking tough steps to combat clergy sex abuse during his 18 years in Pittsburgh.
Some conservative Catholics are calling for his resignation or ouster, and a petition is circulating to remove his name from a parochial high school in suburban Pittsburgh.
We showed pastoral concern by reaching out to victims and their families.– Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington
Wuerl has said he has no plans to resign. He apologized this week for the damage inflicted on the victims but also defended his actions in Pittsburgh.
"The Diocese worked to meet or exceed the requirements of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the reporting requirements of Pennsylvania law," Wuerl said. "We showed pastoral concern by reaching out to victims and their families, while reporting allegations to the authorities so they could investigate crimes."
On Thursday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced an investigation into the McCarrick scandal and said it would invite the Vatican to participate.
Priests accused of misconduct
Wuerl has not been charged with any wrongdoing but is named numerous times in the grand jury report, which details instances in which he allowed priests accused of misconduct to be reassigned or reinstated.
In one case, Wuerl — acting on doctors' recommendation — enabled priest William O'Malley to return to active ministry in 1998 despite allegations of abuse lodged against him in the past and his own admission that he was sexually interested in adolescents. Years later, according to the report, six more people alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by O'Malley, in some cases after he had been reinstated.
"Cardinal Wuerl does not contest the facts. He should resign," tweeted Matthew Schmitz, senior editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. Many of Schmitz's online followers expressed agreement.
Cardinal Wuerl does not contest the facts. He should resign. <a href="https://t.co/XzYxc6KSU1">pic.twitter.com/XzYxc6KSU1</a>
In Wuerl's defence, the archdiocese has released documents that include a detailed account of a case admirers cite as evidence of Wuerl's strong stand against sex abuse.
The case surfaced in 1988, when a 19-year-old former seminarian, Tim Bendig, filed a lawsuit accusing a priest, Anthony Cipolla, of molesting him. Wuerl initially questioned Bendig's version of events but later accepted his account and moved to oust Cipolla from the priesthood.
In 1993, the Vatican's highest court ordered Wuerl to restore Cipolla to the ministry, but Wuerl resisted and, after two years of legal procedures, prevailed in preventing Cipolla's return.
Wuerl "made a lot of enemies, but he persisted," said author and journalist Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter. "He risked his career over five years of battling."
Looking more broadly at Wuerl's career, Winters described him as "kind of exemplary."
"When he gets up and goes to the microphone, everybody listens," Winters said of bishops' conferences he has covered. "He's not an old leftie, he's not a right-wing culture warrior. To use a word that's out of currency, he's a churchman."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who writes for Religion News Service, described Wuerl as an ideological moderate, "not someone who was part of one camp or another."
"He was totally enthusiastic about John Paul II, and then Pope Benedict, and now he's totally enthusiastic about Pope Francis," Reese said. "There are not many people in the church who are totally enthusiastic about all three of them."
The US Catholic Church is very close to becoming a decapitated Church.<br>What Napoleon and Stalin couldn’t do, the hierarchy of the Church itself did.
Numerous conservative Catholic activists and commentators, though, consider him too tolerant of the LGBT community and too liberal on some other issues. They resent his pivotal role a decade ago in resisting a push by some of his fellow bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support the right to abortion.
However, the dismay over the latest scandals goes beyond conservative circles.
"The U.S. Catholic Church is very close to becoming a decapitated Church," tweeted Massimo Faggioli, a relatively liberal theologian at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. "What Napoleon and Stalin couldn't do, the hierarchy of the Church itself did."