Just months ago, before the scandals of last summer, Wuerl seemed likely to continue in office until he was nearly 80, well past the normal retirement age for bishops, which he passed when he turned 75 three years ago. His resignation, submitted in 2015, was accepted last October (with obvious reluctance by the pope) due to mounting pressure on the cardinal following the Pennsylvania grand jury report - in which he was named more than 200 times - and questions about what Wuerl did or did not know about his predecessor.
Recent weeks have seen confirmation by Wuerl that, despite his earlier denials, he was aware of accusations against McCarrick involving misconduct with seminarians as early as 2004. His current tenure as administrator of the Washington archdiocese has helped to keep both him and McCarrick in the news.
While a replacement for Wuerl would likely be received as a welcome turning of the page for both Washington Catholics and the Vatican, deciding who that replacement should be has proven difficult for Rome to resolve. Sources in Washington and the Vatican, including the Congregation for Bishops, have spoken to CNA about a lack of consensus on who is best placed to succeed Wuerl.
Some in Rome had previously speculated that picking a successor for Wuerl might wait until after the February meeting, allowing it to be presented as part of an ongoing process of renewal. Recent events have now made his replacement a more pressing priority.
Further urgency now seems likely, given the expectation of a decision on the McCarrick case. Given the esteem Wuerl still enjoys in Rome, it is unlikely that the Vatican would announce his replacement soon after a guilty verdict on McCarrick, lest the two been seen as related events. If McCarrick’s fate is expected soon, the next archbishop of Washington may well be expected sooner still.
With the Congregation, the pope’s own inner circle of advisors, and Wuerl himself all eager to put forward their own candidates, a succession of supposed front-runners have been touted, beginning with Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, passing through Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and now appearing to settle around either Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport or Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta.
Whoever emerges as the next Archbishop of Washington (and likely cardinal), they will have been chosen with an eye on presenting a credible face of change but one not expected to further rock the boat of the capital see.
If both McCarrick and Wuerl’s different situations can be resolved in the next few weeks, it may offer some breathing room before the February summit. But even assuming the most positive outcome and reception in both cases, little seems likely to dampen expectations for what many are calling a make-or-break meeting in Rome. Senior figures, like former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors Marie Collins, are already warning that the meeting must produce a “practical” outcome and not merely “more talk.”
Earlier this month, Pope Francis wrote to the American bishops about the crisis of credibility facing the hierarchy. He and the Vatican are now facing three major events in the space of a few weeks. How each of them is handled could affect profoundly how quickly that credibility is regained.