When the first Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted in the early 2000s, Wilton Gregory led hundreds of defensive and divided bishops in passing the most aggressive action on abuse in U.S. church history.
But Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke remembers something else about Gregory, who was selected this month by Pope Francis to head the prestigious D.C. archdiocese.
As one of the laypeople Gregory appointed to serve on an advisory board to the bishops, Burke was struck by an inquiry he made to her one night when they found themselves alone after a meeting. He wanted to know how she’d been able to visit Vatican officials for her research on abuse.
She’d Googled “Vatican,” she told him, selected several offices she thought were related to the abuse issue, then faxed letters asking to visit.
“His face was ashen. ‘You what?’ ” she recalls him saying. At 55, that was, she believed, Gregory’s first experience with laypeople who went outside the chain of command.
His shock at her ability to get around protocol startled her, she said, and told her something important — that it was nearly impossible for Gregory to see things from an outside-the-church perspective. “His whole life has been devoted to this institution that’s a bureaucracy — to the point where he doesn’t know how infiltrated he is in that fabric.”
That tendency not to push the boundaries too far was on display in his role at the time as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which he presided over the groundbreaking zero-tolerance policy enacted in what was called the Dallas Charter. The bishops decided to include only priests in the oversight efforts, after considering and then rejecting even an attempt to include any accountability for themselves — an omission that is now a target of criticism.
Before he was the face of the church’s reform efforts after the scandal in Boston, Gregory was a cleanup man in rural Illinois after a massive abuse scandal, and for 15 years he has been the country’s sole black archbishop, most recently serving in Atlanta. In one high-profile role after another throughout his career, he has reacted to scandal and tumult by pushing the envelope in some ways, but always with a nonconfrontational style that doesn’t ultimately challenge the system itself.
With the Archdiocese of Washington since last summer the epicenter of the national crisis, Gregory, 71, once again steps in as the head of a church in turmoil. In what is arguably his most important American leadership pick so far, Pope Francis has chosen Gregory to replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned six months ago because of complaints about his handling of abuse claims.
But the U.S. church in 2019 is very different from what it was in the early 2000s, and in the early 1990s, when Gregory led the diocese of Belleville, Ill., which removed about 10 percent of its priests due to abuse accusations. Many Catholics who haven’t left the church are fed up — withholding money since last year from their dioceses and demanding more action, leadership and transparency.
The question is how a lifetime team player like Gregory will act at a time like this.
Gregory is the Joe Biden of the U.S. church — someone who’s been around forever and is broadly popular, especially among more left-leaning Catholics. He is extremely experienced, a priest who became one of the youngest-ever U.S. bishops at age 36, just one year after church law allows it.
Unlike his predecessor in D.C., he is an extrovert and a big personality. And if tradition holds, as the new leader of the Washington Archdiocese he will become the nation’s first African American cardinal, eligible to vote for pope.
Gregory’s growing profile is no small thing at a time rife with scandal, when the U.S. church is short on visible leaders known for connecting well with lay Catholics.
The archbishop’s career began in Chicago, where he was raised in a poor working-class family on the South Side. His mother was a singer who played the role of Aunt Jemima in radio ads and pancake breakfasts sponsored by Quaker Oats, according to a 2002 Post profile. His father was a computer technician. Neither of his parents, who have since died, was Catholic. They divorced when he was a boy, and his maternal grandmother moved in to help raise Gregory and two younger sisters.
In 1958, his mother and grandmother enrolled him as a sixth-grader in a parochial school for a better education.
Gregory was so impressed by the kindness of the priests and nuns at his school, “Within six weeks, I said, ‘I’m going to be a priest!’ ” he recalled at his D.C. news conference. He converted to Catholicism right away.
Gregory told The Washington Post in an email that his mother and grandmother were initially “cautiously supportive” of his conversion. His father, who was not a churchgoer, he wrote, “was rather silent when I spoke to him about my desire.” The two conversed often over the years about faith, and when Gregory’s father lay dying in 2010, “I said, ‘Pops, I think I should baptize you.’ He agreed and I baptized my dad right before he died.”
Burke, a fellow Chicagoan, noted that the young Gregory was mentored by William Shannon, who was a city alderman when Gregory began his church career. Gregory learned the craft of collaboration at his knee, she said, citing Gregory’s willingness to give laypeople power as among the qualities she has come to admire greatly in him.
Gregory was ordained a priest in Chicago in 1973 in his mid-20s and soon after went to get a doctorate in sacred liturgy in Rome. After finishing his degree, Gregory became a protege of one of the major figures of the U.S. church of that era: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
Bernardin was seen as a pioneer in advocating for what he called a “consistent ethic of life” that would have Catholics fight to protect life at any age — including by working on issues like poverty and nuclear war, not just abortion and euthanasia.
Bernardin selected Gregory to be his master of ceremonies and ordained him as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983.
When Gregory’s name was reported as a finalist for the Washington job, liberal Catholics raved, calling him a “Bernardin-like bishop.” Conservative Catholics used the same phrase with alarm, saying abortion and reproduction are primary.
“Cardinal Bernardin left a legacy of dilution of Catholic teaching and subversion of the fight to protect unborn babies and their mothers,” the Catholic Laity for Orthodox Bishops and Reform, a group of D.C. conservatives, wrote in a statement urging the pope to pick someone else.
In 1994, Gregory’s first assignment to lead a diocese put him in a position not unlike his role in Washington in 2019: healing a community rocked by clergy abuse. By the time Gregory arrived in the rural Illinois diocese of Belleville, about 10 priests and a deacon had been ordered removed for abusive behavior — a rare penalty in U.S. dioceses at the time.
Gregory’s job was to root out remaining problems and reassure the flock.
“He said, ‘We’re in trouble,’ ” recalled the Rev. Dennis Voss, of Belleville, of one of Gregory’s first meetings with all of his priests in the diocese. “He knelt down. All of us prayed over him. We knew this was going to be a rough time.”
Brenda Pehle, who worked for the Belleville diocese for 25 years, said the removal of so many priests meant parishes without clergy.
“We were just reeling in the awfulness and the pain of sexual misconduct,” she said.
When Gregory arrived, he made Pehle a full-time administrator, as well as, eventually, 12 other nuns and laywomen who were given the title “parish life coordinators.” Gregory’s willingness to place women in so many positions of authority struck her as unusual at the time.
But Gregory’s actions also left many people angry. David Clohessy, then executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and local victims thought Gregory could have done more and that the diocese should have been more generous in paying for counseling. Some Belleville Catholics were upset that priests were removed from their ministries without clear proof of misconduct.
Gregory had been a seminarian during another period of upheaval, when the Black Power and civil rights movements challenged the status quo in the church.
The Second Vatican Council, with its call for honoring local cultures, had opened the door for debate about what it means to be authentically Catholic and black. There began a flurry of experimentation with integrating gospel, jazz and African symbols into Catholic worship.
“He’s becoming a priest when what it means to be black and Catholic is radically changing,” said Matthew Cressler, a religious studies professor at the College of Charleston who wrote a book about black Catholicism in the U.S.
Gregory embraced the spiritual revolution, in the 1980s helping to create a hymnal that would become the standard for black parishes. But he did not side with the aims of a more radical group of black priests who declared the church “a white racist institution,” Cressler said.
Other black priests acted more confrontationally. George A. Stallings Jr., in the District, had formed a breakaway black Catholic movement; he was excommunicated (and was also accused of sexual misconduct with three youths, which he denied). George Clements, a Chicago priest, had placed a likeness of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad on a parish altar to pay homage when Muhammad died.
“It’s a given he lives with contentment and doesn’t draw attention” to race, said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a professor and former theology school dean at Catholic University, who became close friends with Gregory in 1975 while they were doctoral students in Rome.
“As an African American bishop, he’s always exemplified an open-door policy to everyone: Diversity is presumed, favoritism is not exercised, and [he aims to] be faithful to as wide a flock as possible,” said Irwin, who said he still talks to Gregory every week.
Gregory now will arrive in the nation’s capital when racial friction is at the forefront of American life. The church also has a strong presence in the city’s large black community, including its sizable middle class. Black Catholics make up about 13 percent of the Washington Archdiocese, compared to about 3 percent for the nation as a whole. Many black city leaders are Catholic or went to Catholic schools, including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and her predecessors Adrian Fenty and Anthony A. Williams, city council members Vincent C. Gray and Robert C. White Jr., and Attorney General Karl A. Racine.
Pastors in Atlanta, which is also known for its vibrant black life, recall Gregory introducing himself when he arrived in 2004 to the broader African American Christian community.
“He is a revitalizing force, particularity in the African American community,” said Gerald Durley, a longtime Baptist pastor in Atlanta. Durley remembers watching Gregory preach bluntly about the deadly 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
But Richard Rose, president of an Atlanta NAACP branch, said he encountered Gregory only once or twice in the archbishop’s many years there.
“Georgia is ground zero for these Confederate issues. He has not been visible in that,” Rose said.
Similar debates arise about how much credit to give Gregory on abuse. Yes, he did more than others in 1994 and in 2004, but that might not be enough in 2019, critics say.
“At a time when very few people showed courage on clerical sex abuse, he did,” said John Carr, an abuse victim who for years was a high-level advocate in the bishops’ conference and worked closely with Gregory. “Lots of people were saying: ‘Too far, too fast, it’s the media, it’s the lawyers,’ and he wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
Victims’ advocates note that the Archdiocese of Atlanta posted its list of accused clergy only last year — 16 years after Diocese of Tucson became the first to make such names public. And in Georgia, Gregory led an archdiocese that — like many — reportedly continues to fight proposed laws that would open windows for older abuse victims to sue. The archdiocese opposed such a bill just last year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“Archbishop Gregory — he’s called a moderate. But he’s not,” said Georgia attorney Esther Panitch, who advocated for the law to extend the statute of limitations. “Pragmatically, he fought and he’s still fighting in Atlanta every step of the way to prevent the church from owning their mistakes. . . . It’s beyond hypocritical.”
Those who look for examples of boldness in Gregory’s history recall a gesture of humility that some considered audacious at the time: After he was installed in Atlanta, the archbishop began washing women’s feet at the Holy Thursday ritual.
It was a gesture that Pope Francis would also become known for in a far brighter spotlight. And Gregory has been compared to Francis in his willingness to offend those on the right by making bold declarations for inclusion.
Last fall, Gregory invited to Atlanta the Rev. James Martin, a popular writer and advocate for LGBT inclusion in the church. The invitation drew protests by some Catholics who say Martin is outside the church’s teaching.
“He could’ve played it safe,” said the Rev. Bryan Small of Atlanta. “He vacillates between the pragmatic and the bold.”
Gregory also built the first diocesan ministry in the United States around Laudato Si, Francis’s document on the environment and climate change. But he became embroiled in an un-Francis-like controversy that lingered into the papacy.
A local Catholic left $15 million, plus his home, to be used for a local cathedral and archdiocesan charitable causes, the Journal-Constitution reported. Saying the cathedral was growing and needed more space for its bigger staff of clergy, Gregory and archdiocesan officials decided to move a group of priests into his old house and take $2 million from the gift to build the archbishop a 6,200-square-foot mansion in the swanky Buckhead neighborhood.
The Associated Press reported that local Catholics were livid, calling the price tag outlandish, especially with the message Francis was sending of simplicity. Gregory, the AP reported, said Francis had “set the bar” for church leaders and that he hadn’t considered the project in terms of the cost to his own “integrity and pastoral credibility.”
He apologized in 2014 and agreed to sell the house.
After the controversy, Gregory replaced his Lexus with a Honda, an archdiocesan employee said.
Irwin said that to succeed in Washington, Gregory will need to emulate the pope. To Irwin, that means being non-polarizing and not switching positions based on one media outlet’s view or another. Conservative Catholic blogs in particular, he said, want leaders who are authoritarian and dogmatic.
“It’s not going to happen in the Francis papacy. It’s about the tenor of the Francis papacy,” Irwin said.
By that measure alone, he believes Francis picked the right man for the job.