A flashy and expensive white Mercedes rolled out from the four-car garage of Donald Wuerl around 10:05 PM on December 11. I was there in the parking lot of Queen of the Americas parish at 2200 California street in the luxurious neighborhood known commonly as Embassy Row.
The Catholic cardinal of the nation’s capital since 2006, Wuerl has long had a reputation for high living — despite his exalted status as the most powerful American prelate in what the media calls the “humble church” of Pope Francis. (In his previous posting as a bishop in Pittsburgh, he lived in a 31-room mansion filled with antiques, rugs, and art.) But few know the details of his furtive pursuits on Embassy Row — a posh lifestyle which stands in shocking contrast to the simplicity Pope Francis insists he wants his shepherds to embrace.
I got a small glimpse of that contrast as I watched the white Mercedes move towards me. I put up my hand and the driver stopped and got out. “Do you work for Cardinal Wuerl?” I asked the black man, who appeared to be late middle age, as he exited the white Mercedes. “Yes,” he said. “I am his personal chef.”
Unaware that Cardinal Wuerl employed a personal chef, I asked the gentleman his name. He refused to give it. But he did describe himself as “an archdiocesan employee.”
Was the white Mercedes an archdiocesan vehicle? “I don’t know what you are implying,” said the man, who claimed the vehicle as his own, for which he paid with earnings from his time in the “military.”
Nervous and upset, the man resented my stopping him. “I got to get back to Baltimore,” he complained.
Earlier in the day, I had called Fr. Charles Cortinovis, the personal secretary to Cardinal Wuerl, multiple times and received no response. I had learned that Cortinovis lives, along with Wuerl, on the fourth floor of the archdiocesan building at 2200 California, a property priced at north of $43,000,000.
Cortinovis is the third personal secretary to Cardinal Wuerl during a tenure less than a decade. The other two had also lived on the same floor with the cardinal, which is “12,000 square feet,” according to a rough estimate by a lawyer familiar with the property records for the building.
Unbeknownst to most priests, lay people, and even donors to the Washington archdiocese, the palatial and multimillionaire floor also includes a chapel. Without any apparent consultation with his priests or the faithful, Wuerl during his tenure has made costly renovations to what he described to his architect as his “personal residence” and “personal chapel” on the floor.
“I would like to speak to Fr. Cortinovis,” I said to the black man leaning on the white Mercedes. He took out his cell phone and called up. He explained to Cortinovis that a reporter was in the parking lot seeking to speak with him. The man transferred the phone to me. “Is this Fr. Cortinovis?” I said as I got on the line. There was a very long pause, punctuated by Cortinovis barking, “Who are you?”
“I am a reporter doing a story on Cardinal Wuerl,” I replied. “I have been trying to get a hold of you.” I asked him why he hadn’t returned my multiple calls and then said, “Could I come up and speak with you and Cardinal Wuerl?” Audibly agitated, Cortinovis shouted, “It is ten after ten, Mr. Neumayr!”
I offered to come back the following day at a more convenient time. Still, my presence in the parking lot at the hour wasn’t unusual: after all, a loud Our Lady of Guadalupe festival was taking place on the floors below Wuerl’s penthouse, where the “Our Lady Queen of the Americas parish” resides (the striking pre-Vatican II chapel sits on the second floor). At 11 that evening, a Mass honoring the Virgin Mary was to be held, followed by a reception after midnight. Curiously, Cortinvois appeared oblivious to the noise from the build-up to the event below the penthouse he occupies with Wuerl.
“Nobody is allowed to go up to the fourth floor,” more than one parishioner has said to me in a lowered voice. According to my reporting, neither Wuerl nor Cortinovis ever interact with members of the parish, many of whom come from Mexico, Central America, and Latin America.
Rattled by my call, Cortinovis said that he needed to break away and would return to the line shortly. He never did. “Why did he abandon the call?” I asked the black man, who jumped into the white Mercedes and sped away.
I have made multiple requests for information about Wuerl’s “personal chef” to the archdiocese in general and Chieko Noguchi, his director of media relations, in particular. She refuses to answer my questions.
What is his name? How much does he receive in salary a year? The archdiocese declines to answer these questions, even though his salary, if he is in fact an archdiocesan employee, would derive from the donations of the faithful.
At two book signings — one at the bookstore at Catholic University’s Basilica on December 14 and another at K street’s Catholic Information Center on December 16 — Cardinal Wuerl appeared. He has recently penned a book titled To the Martyrs.
I showed up to both signings. At the first, shortly after Cardinal Wuerl arrived in the bookstore, two police officers came up to me and said, “We need to talk to you outside.” I was then informed that the archdiocese, which owns the bookstore’s property, wanted me “off it.” At the second signing, I arrived late, around 6:05 PM, as Cardinal Wuerl gave a little talk about his new book. I did not speak to him during the talk or during the question-and-answer session following it. But I did introduce myself to him as the book-signing phase of the event started and spoke to him privately as he approached the table at which he was to sign books.
“Why won’t you speak to me,” I said to him as he weakly shook my hand and averted his eyes from me. As he sat down to start signing books, officials with Opus Dei, the organization that runs the Catholic Information Center, encircled me and demanded that I leave. Evidently they had been briefed by archdiocesan officials on my journalistic investigation into the cardinal’s Embassy Row lifestyle. “I am a member of the press,” I replied as they pressed against me. “Call the police” if you want me to leave, I said to them as they temporized about what to do with me.
The crowd, full of supporters of Wuerl, showered me in condemnations. I stood my ground, even saying to John Gizzi, a reporter with Newsmax whom I saw approaching me as a member of the crowd angry with me, “Mr. Gizzi, do you believe in press freedom?” On that evening, he didn’t.
As the crowd tried to bully me out of the bookstore, I said, “Call the police.” Eventually, they did. A police man arrived and informed me that the property owner wanted me off it. Twice in one week, Wuerl, the face of the “transparent and humble” church of Pope Francis in America, had me escorted off its property by police.
“He is handling this very badly,” said a prominent liberal religion reporter to me last week.
Questions about Wuerl’s putative personal chef — along with many other regarding his use of the faithful’s money to pursue a lifestyle more akin to the Borgia era than the Francis one — remain, and it is clear that Cardinal Wuerl is determined to stonewall every one of them.
George Neumayr is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.