Wuerl became bishop of Pittsburgh less than a year later, in 1988.
Almost immediately, he faced a problem at home. Revelations that a local priest, Father Anthony Cipolla, had molested an altar boy forced Wuerl to take a public position on abuse policy. Wuerl removed Cipolla from ministry and made the decision permanent after Cipolla refused psychiatric treatment—and when new details came to light of his earlier arrest for molesting a nine-year-old.
Cipolla maintained his innocence and appealed Wuerl’s decision to the Vatican. The Vatican’s highest court ordered Wuerl to reinstate Cipolla. But Wuerl instead demanded an unheard-of rehearing, saying the court didn’t have the police report involving his arrest. The case took more than two years to review, and ultimately Wuerl won out.
He found an ally in Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “He just stood with me,” Wuerl recalls, “and eventually Pope John Paul II said this will be made right. It’s wrong and it will be made right.”
The pope eventually defrocked Cipolla, stripping him of his priestly powers. But some believe Wuerl ruffled feathers in bucking the Vatican’s initial decision—and that it might have cost him an earlier promotion.
“I’ve heard from several insiders that the case turned some influential people against him,” says Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A lot of people think that’s why he wasn’t elevated sooner.”
There’s always chatter in Church circles—practical or not—about the likelihood that a US archbishop might become pope. In those conversations, Wuerl is usually in the mix.
But by most accounts, an American—even one as versed in the ways of the Vatican as Wuerl—won’t serve in the top job. There is still a “very strong taboo against a superpower pope,” Allen says.
With the mandatory bishops’ retirement age of 75 looming for him in 2015, Wuerl’s service could end in Washington. But Allen believes he could be called again to Rome to head, for example, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Congregation for the Clergy. Georgetown University’s Thomas Reese agrees: “He certainly is the type of bishop that Benedict likes—someone who is interested in theology, someone who is bright and prudent and recognizes the importance of religious education.”
Wuerl says he isn’t looking that far down the road and shrugs off any pope talk. “I appreciate the affection that motivates that,” he says. “It’s unrealistic.”
He expects the Church to tap leaders from the regions where it’s growing for its next spiritual chief. He mentions Africa, Asia, and Latin and South America. He also dismisses some observers’ suggestions that he could be instrumental in informally guiding the balloting process behind the scenes. A kingmaker, of sorts. He says the selection ultimately turns on the power of prayer.
Wuerl insists his future is in building the Church in the nation’s capital, in putting aside politics to talk about faith.
“You have to sink roots quickly,” he says of his Washington journey. “And it didn’t take too long to come to love this Church. It’s a wonderful place. Now this is my reference point for home.”
This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.