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Catholic clergyman in D.C. calls on cardinal to resign

Kevin Wolf/Associated Press/File

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral last month.

By Julie Zauzmer Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — A highly visible member of Washington’s Catholic clergy has made a dramatic declaration calling on Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign, the latest blow to D.C.’s embattled archbishop.

Deacon James Garcia, in his role as the master of ceremony at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the District of Columbia, typically stands beside Wuerl during almost every major liturgy of the year. But Garcia wrote in a letter to Wuerl, which the deacon published online Saturday, that he refuses to assist in any Mass led by Wuerl again. Since deacons vow obedience to their bishop, it is a bold gesture.

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‘‘The time for cowardice and self-preservation is long past. Victims cry out for justice and the faithful deserve shepherds who are not compromised. Apology and accompaniment are critical. But no amount of apology will suffice unless and until bishops and other complicit clergy are removed or resign,’’ Garcia wrote in his letter.

And he addressed Wuerl directly: ‘‘I cannot, in good conscience, continue to assist you personally, whether as an assisting deacon or a master of ceremony.’’

Since a Pennsylvania grand jury in August released a major investigative report cataloging alleged child abuse committed in the state by more than 300 priests, Wuerl — who oversaw some of these abusive priests during his 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh before he became archbishop of Washington — has faced calls to resign from numerous corners. A few dozen protesters picketed with signs outside St. Matthew’s and outside the cardinal’s residence. More than 40 Catholic schoolteachers skipped the back-to-school Mass, demanding Wuerl step down.

Garcia’s letter, published on a blog run by Garcia’s friend Joelle Casteix, an advocate for clergy sex abuse victims, adds the voice of a member of the clergy who works closely with Wuerl. And it comes as Wuerl is publicly grappling with the fallout from the grand jury report: He traveled to the Vatican, where Pope Francis advised him to consult his priests about whether he should ask the pope to accept his resignation, then came home and declared a six-week ‘‘season of healing.’’

The week before that season starts, Garcia published his letter online.

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Deacons are ordained clergy in the Catholic church, like priests, but they have different duties and can marry. They can baptize children and prepare couples for marriage. Garcia has helped teach classes for adult converts to Catholicism, and as master of ceremony, he makes sure that the cathedral’s most elaborate liturgies run smoothly and solemnly.

Garcia, a married Arlington lawyer, began pursuing ordination in 2009 and became a deacon in 2013. He was assigned to the parish at St. Matthew’s, the cathedral in the archdiocese of Washington.

In the vows of ordination, deacons pledge obedience to their bishop. Five years ago, following the rite of ordination, Garcia knelt down before Wuerl, and Wuerl asked the traditional question: ‘‘Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?’’ Garcia replied: ‘‘I do.’’

But Garcia said in an interview on Saturday night that he does not believe he is breaking his vow by refusing to participate again in a Mass that Wuerl celebrates. He has discussed his decision with the rector of the cathedral, he said, and he will still read the Gospel aloud and perform his other duties during Masses that Wuerl is not leading. And because Wuerl has not ordered him to assist him in Mass, he isn’t disobeying him by declaring he won’t do it, Garcia reasons.

Ed McFadden, a spokesman for the archdiocese of Washington, declined to comment on Saturday night on the letter.

Garcia said he knows that some in the church will disagree with his decision and may even challenge whether he is breaking his vows. But he said he thinks that bishops must resign for the church to regain its moral authority,.

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‘‘There is a need for the leaders of the church to take a greater degree of responsibility than they have up till now,’’ he said.