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Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl Resigns Amid Pressure


Early this morning, there was news from the Vatican that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Washington's Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Wuerl has been under tremendous pressure to resign since a report this summer detailed the abuse of more than 300 children in the Pennsylvania diocese. Wuerl was accused of mishandling several cases of abuse while at the Diocese of Pittsburgh for over two decades. And in Pennsylvania this morning, the man who prepared that scathing horrific report, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, urged state lawmakers to eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse prosecutions. He's on the line now from Philadelphia. Welcome.

JOSH SHAPIRO: Good to be with you, thank you.

CHANG: So I want to ask you about your reaction to Wuerl's resignation. What went through your mind when you first heard the news today?

SHAPIRO: Well, Cardinal Wuerl's resignation is a necessary step given what the grand jurors uncovered about his role in the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse. I actually second his comments about the need for greater transparency within the church. I think what's missing here though is an acknowledgment by the Vatican on the extent of the abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania and then Bishop Wuerl's role in it. Now, I'll leave it to the churches - you know, the church's internal politics to them and their parishioners. But I do not think that the people of Pennsylvania will accept that anyone proven to be part of this cover-up should face no real consequences for that criminal conduct.

CHANG: That's exactly what I wanted to address because in a letter to Cardinal Wuerl that the cardinal released today, Pope Francis actually praised him. The letter seems to suggest that the only thing Cardinal Wuerl is guilty of is managerial mistakes, not covering up any crimes. What do you think of that characterization by the pope?

SHAPIRO: I think that it is demonstrably false to suggest that then-Bishop Wuerl did not play any meaningful role in the cover-up. The church's own secret archives show the active role that Bishop Wuerl played in it.

CHANG: OK. I want to turn now to your call for changing the current statute of limitations. You basically agree with four recommendations that the grand jury report articulated. Tell me about how you think the law should change.

SHAPIRO: In Pennsylvania, we uncovered 301 predator priests. Sadly, I could only charge two of them.


SHAPIRO: And if we lived in another jurisdiction where there is no criminal statute of limitations, I would have charged every single one of them who is living. Every single one of these victims has been time-barred from bringing a civil suit.

CHANG: But with respect to completely eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal cases, it is true that the longer you wait before you prosecute a crime the harder the case becomes to prove. Witnesses pass away. Memories fade. Evidence grows stale. Does any of that concern you as a lawyer?

SHAPIRO: Of course. But the burden is always on us, the prosecutors, to bring that case. And, yes, it is more difficult oftentimes when a number of years goes by. But it doesn't mean that we should be barred from bringing a case, especially when the data clearly shows that children who were abused often don't come forward right away and, in fact, the average age that a child comes forward to share their truth is when they turn 52 - 52. And yet the law here in Pennsylvania says that we couldn't bring a criminal case after the age of 50. And so we believe - and the data shows - that if it's going to take that much time for someone to come forward, we shouldn't be barred from prosecuting.

CHANG: Now, what your office's report laid bare is how a large institution - in this instance, the Catholic Church but there are so many other examples - how a large institution can go to great lengths to cover up sexual abuse and to protect abusers. Does revising the statute of limitations get at that? Would it actually increase the accountability internally at these institutions?

SHAPIRO: Well, you hit the nail on the head. So much of this is about an institution, in this case the Catholic Church - arguably the most powerful institution in the world - constantly and consistently putting its own reputation above the needs of the people they were there to serve - in this case, children. I think there's a reckoning going on in this country right now about how we are going to - or how much we are willing to hold powerful institutions accountable. And I think you're seeing across this country with all that's going on - with the #MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh hearings and the Cosby trial - is you're seeing more and more people stepping up and being willing to hold powerful institutions accountable. And law enforcement plays a unique and critical role in that process. That's what we're doing here in Pennsylvania.

CHANG: Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania's state attorney general. Thank you very much for joining us.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.