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Report that Pope Francis has picked a new D.C. archbishop eclipsed by doubts and conspiracy theories

A news report that Pope Francis is appointing Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory to replace embattled D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has become engulfed by conspiracy theories.
A news report that Pope Francis is appointing Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory to replace embattled D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has become engulfed by conspiracy theories. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
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When the pope names a new bishop for a diocese, it’s always buzzy Catholic news. But a leaked report this past week about the next archbishop of Washington was big news for unexpected reasons.

The Catholic News Agency, citing anonymous sources, reported Thursday that Pope Francis is going to appoint Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory to replace embattled D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl — which would make Gregory the first black Catholic archbishop of the capital, one of the most high-profile posts in the nation. The news was quickly eclipsed by questions, doubts and conspiracy theories about the sources behind it.

Had Gregory really been offered the job — or was someone allied with the pope floating a trial balloon to gauge sentiment in the District, an epicenter of the current clergy sexual abuse crisis?

Or could the report, in a conservative-leaning publication, have been leaked purposely by Francis critics in the Vatican or elsewhere to hurt and possibly scuttle the pick of Gregory, loathed by some orthodox Catholics as too liberal?

Another theory is the leaks came as a push to make Gregory, who is seen as happy and mostly popular in Atlanta, feel more obligated to accept the pope’s offer if it were made public.

It’s also possible there’s no manipulation behind the leaks, and Gregory’s appointment will be announced soon.

The Catholic News Agency hedged, saying the “likely appointment could still be subject to change.”

The Vatican and church officials in Washington and Atlanta declined to verify the report, leading some to speculate that it was untrue, Gregory could be considering turning it down or the pope could change his mind. As of Saturday, no other Catholic media or mainstream outlet, including The Washington Post, had confirmed the CNA’s reporting, although the far-right website Church Militant was quick to cite the CNA report.

CNA’s editor in chief, J.D. Flynn, who is also one of the authors of the piece, said, “I don’t have any doubt about the veracity of what we reported.”

Names of new bishops sometimes leak a day before the appointment, but experts said they couldn’t recall the name of someone who had been offered the job getting out a week or more in advance. The CNA report said the appointment “could come as early as next week.

The reaction Friday illustrated the intense political polarization in the Catholic Church, as well as the very high stakes many say Francis perceives in filling the vacancy created when Wuerl resigned in October — a long vacancy by church standards.

“Even without the abuse stuff, this would be important because of the political situation, the polarization, the fraught state of the country,” said Rocco Palmo, author of the popular Catholic news site Whispers in the Loggia. “Whomever is in D.C. will set an important tone for the church politically on issues of priority — be it abortion, immigration, whatever. This appointment is too big to fail. This is the most significant thing Francis will do in the United States during his papacy.”

Rich Raho, a campus minister from St. Patrick High School in Chicago who tweets church news to thousands of followers, warned Thursday that someone who wants to hurt the Gregory appointment could be the one who leaked it.

“Floating potential episcopal appointments well ahead of an actual announcement while quoting anonymous sources is risky, to say the least,” Raho tweeted. “Francis is a pope of surprises and could change his mind at any moment. Caution, folks!”

In an interview with The Post, Raho pointed to fired-up readers commenting against Gregory on some right-leaning sites. “If they’re trying to achieve a purpose, it’s working.”

The D.C. archdiocese, which includes the District and Maryland suburbs, is a prosperous, healthy part of the Catholic Church and has been rocked since the summer, when its last archbishop — Theodore McCarrick — was suspended for alleged child sexual abuse. Then Wuerl was forced to retire early after the release of a bombshell grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about clergy mishandling and coverup of abusive priests. Wuerl was criticized for allegedly mishandling several abuse cases in his role as bishop of Pittsburgh.

Many Catholics were upset in January when Wuerl admitted during questioning from The Post that he knew of complaints about McCarrick years ago and had reported them to the Vatican, despite denying having any knowledge of the scandal since it surfaced.

Even fans of Wuerl recognize the archdiocese is hurting and needs a new and healing leader who will offer no surprises.

Under the tenures of Francis and President Trump, Catholics have become bitterly divided about almost everything, and the crisis has served to further that political polarization.

With Washington at the epicenter of the crisis, Francis’s pick for the seat will likely be seen as a statement on the scandal engulfing the global church. Francis is seen by many survivors as uneven on the topic.

Conservatives immediately responded on social media to the CNA with criticism about a possible pick of Gregory, who is associated with moderate bishops who have largely sidestepped the culture war.

“This is a bad move. Gregory is 100% McCarrick/Wuerl Apologist Company Man .... sigh.... more of the same,” wrote one reader on Twitter.


Gregory, the site noted, was a protege of the late Chicago cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a lead promoter of “the ‘seamless garment’ philosophy that saw poverty, joblessness and other social justice issues as weighty as abortion,” the site said in a sharply critical way.

A group of conservative Catholics in the archdiocese Friday put out a statement appealing for Gregory not to be picked.

“Cardinal Bernardin left a legacy of dilution of Catholic teaching and subversion of the fight to protect unborn babies and their mothers,” wrote the Catholic Laity for Orthodox Bishops and Reform.

Michael Sean Winters, a left-leaning columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, raved over a possible Gregory appointment because he thinks the church needs more moderation.

“The church needs more people in the style and leadership of Bernardin, committed to a consistent ethic of life, social justice, to engagement with the culture, and who are allergic to vitriol,” Winters said.

He said a senior black bishop would be a powerful image in Washington, especially after the explosion of controversy in 2009 — including vocal criticism by some bishops — when President Barack Obama was invited to give a commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic school.

“Black Catholics’ experienced the disrespect shown to the first black president in a way that white Catholics never did,” Winters said. “Even conservative black Catholics who disagree with Barack Obama on many things were turned off by the vile response he got. To receive a black archbishop in the nation’s capital will be a real shot in the arm.”

Like almost all U.S. bishops with a lengthy record in church leadership, Gregory’s history of handling abusive priests has been questioned at times.

Gregory, 71, was praised by some for removing abusive priests from ministry when he was bishop of Belleville, Ill., even before the Boston Globe’s landmark exposure of abuse in the church in 2002. Some advocates say the removals were already in the works before he came.

When the Boston scandal broke, Gregory was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and he led the bishops through their landmark 2002 meeting in Dallas addressing the crisis.

Terry McKiernan, who leads the anti-abuse organization Bishop Accountability, gave Gregory high marks in some areas — in particular for leading the creation of the Dallas Charter, a document for the U.S. church that created a zero-tolerance policy for priests.

However, critics noted the charter didn’t address oversight for bishops — an omission that many activists in the church blame for today’s problems.

In 2004, Gregory, as president of the bishops’ conference, made a speech that some survivors came to equate with cluelessness. “The terrible history recorded here today is history,” Gregory told a news conference.

That same year, the Illinois diocese that Gregory was leading was held in contempt of court for refusing to release the mental-health records of a retired priest accused of abusing three children. Gregory had removed the priest from ministry nine years earlier, but the diocese fought the civil case brought by one of the victims.

Gerard O’Connell, a longtime Vatican reporter in Rome who recently wrote an article with a very rare leak from the most recent pope vote, in 2013, said Friday that it is very unusual for names of new bishops to get out well in advance.

O’Connell, associate editor for America magazine, like several other writers for Catholic publications, said the magazine’s sources had not confirmed the Gregory appointment. He believed there was extra caution being taken about Washington.

“They’re taking great care, given Theodore McCarrick. They want to appoint someone who on the abuse question is above question,” he said.

Flynn said Friday that the leaks were part of an unusual era in Washington due to it’s role as an epicenter of the abuse crisis in the United States.

Flynn, who is also a canon lawyer, said his sources said there is extra review of candidates’ backgrounds happening “to make sure there aren’t things that are a source of scandal or difficulty.”

Flynn said the interest among Catholics in this opening has been intense. “It far exceeds interest I’ve seen [in previous openings] in the United States before.”

Asked how he felt about the speculation that leaking to an outlet with a more conservative readership was deliberate, Flynn declined to add any detail about the thinking of those who leaked the news.

“Like everything else now, there is a lot of polarization,” Flynn said. “And one thing you know is, when you report facts now, it’s so often said you are making some kind of statement. We just think this is news and wanted to cover it.”

Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to move up a comment from Catholic News Agency Editor in Chief J.D. Flynn.