WASHINGTON – Four days after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl amid criticism of his handling of clerical sex abuse, Washington’s archbishop released a list of 31 members of the clergy who had been “credibly accused” of abusing minors dating back 70 years.
Wuerl included the list in a letter to clergy, calling the move “a necessary step toward full transparency and accountability and the process of healing.”
None are in active ministry. Eighteen of the clergy had been arrested, and 13 were never arrested. Of those not arrested, five were listed in a publicly searchable database of accused priests. Fourteen of the 31 men are still alive.
The letter names of 28 clergy members of the archdiocese and three priests who were part of religious orders, or independent communities.
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The letter states that “there has not been an incident of abuse of a minor by a priest of the archdiocese in almost two decades.” It does not say how recently accusers came forward, how many victims were abused by priests, nor whether all cases were taken to civil authorities.
Archdiocesan spokesman Ed McFadden said about six of the names had not been made public before, but it was not clear how widely publicized abuse allegations were against the remaining priests.
Some were arrested, including Raymond Callahan, convicted in 1971, and Francis Benham, whose abuse was first reported in 1979 and who was arrested and convicted in 2005. One priest, Thomas Lyons, was not reported as an abuser until after he had already died.
One accused priest, Paul Twiddy, whose alleged abuse was first reported in 1965, remained active in ministry on and off for decades. Twiddy returned to ministry in 1968, was reported again in 1971, returned to limited ministry in 1980 and retired in 1986. He died in 2009.
McFadden called the list a first step and said the process of releasing all information related to abuse “will take months.” There will be additional lists released, he said, including clergy members who faced accusations that were not found credible by the archdiocese and clergy members who faced other types of accusations.
Since 1948, there have been 1,184 priests in the Washington, D.C., archdiocese.
The letter comes amid huge turmoil in a part of the U.S. church that had seemed until recently to have evaded the abuse crisis. But in June, Washington’s previous archbishop – ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a popular figure in the U.S. church – was suspended amid allegations that he abused children and adults. He later resigned. McCarrick is not on the list because he was not a priest in the archdiocese when the abuse he was accused of allegedly occurred.
On Friday, Wuerl, a top ally of Pope Francis, officially retired after months of criticism that he had mishandled abuse allegations when he was in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and had not been transparent in Washington, either. However, his much-anticipated retirement wasn’t immediate – Francis said he would keep Wuerl on as an administrator while his replacement is found.
Clergy members as well as parishioners have been asking for the archdiocese to be more forthcoming about priests accused of sexual abuse. McFadden said Wuerl had approved moving forward with a full audit some time ago and that “the compilation released today was ready for release within the past week.”
“We are fully examining everything,” McFadden said.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Wuerl called the list “a painful reminder of the grave sins committed by clergy, the pain inflicted on innocent young people, and the harm done to the Church’s faithful, for which we continue to seek forgiveness. . . . Our strong commitment to accompany survivors of abuse on their path toward healing is unwavering.”
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, called the list a “hastily assembled PR stunt.” In a news release, a spokeswoman for the group said the list was incomplete and did not include the names of some priests who had been accused of sexual abuse. The group also called into question the use of the term “credibly accused.”
“We call on the Archdiocese to immediately release the names of every priest, whether living or dead, religious order or diocesan, along with accused seminarians, bishops, nuns, brothers and lay employees,” SNAP said.
U.S. prosecutors across the country are starting to look into sexual abuse of minors in their local Catholic communities, including in nearby Baltimore.
There are 196 Catholic dioceses or archdioceses – organizing regions – in the United States, according to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More than 50 of those have in recent years published lists of accused priests, said Terry McKiernan, whose site BishopAccountability.org advocates that such lists be released.
Even when the accused clergy are long deceased or removed from ministry, it can still be psychologically powerful for victims to see a comprehensive list of names published, McKiernan said.
“There’s enormous value for a survivor in knowing that his or her perpetrator abused someone else. It’s a sad fact, but it’s a validating fact,” he said.
The publication of such lists frequently spurs other victims, abused decades ago, to report their abuse for the first time. In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said last week that the state’s massive grand jury report listing more than 300 accused priests has prompted 1,272 phone calls to a state-run clergy abuse hotline since the report’s publication in August. Previously, the hotline had received 300 calls over a two-year time span, Shapiro said. Some of the new reports might eventually lead to criminal prosecutions.
McKiernan said that even if some priests cannot be held accountable, every diocese should still publish a comprehensive list.
“I think there’s an enormous burden in every parish, in every diocese all over the world, of these unaddressed injuries. I think until that dark area of our history is entirely brought into the light, there’s just going to be something wrong with the church,” McKiernan said.
Responding to those who would consign this decades-old abuse to history and move on, McKiernan said: “Even when it is history, that means we have a responsibility: to study it, to learn from it and to not repeat it. And that’s something the lists can do for us.”