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Vatican picks Wilton Gregory as new archbishop of Washington, where he will succeed Wuerl

Wilton Gregory, 71, succeeds Cardinal Donald Wuerl as the District's archbishop, and will take charge of one of the most scandal-ridden archdioceses in the U.S. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

ROME — Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta has accepted Pope Francis’s offer to become the new archbishop of Washington, according to two sources familiar with the process. The appointment finalizes a months-long effort to find a leader for an archdiocese that has been upended by accusations that its last leader mishandled cases of sexual abuse by clergy and his predecessor carried out abuse.

A formal Holy See announcement will come Thursday, one of those sources said.

With the new position, Gregory, 71, the only living African American U.S. archbishop, will become one of the most visible Catholic leaders in the country. The leader of the high-profile D.C. seat traditionally is made a cardinal, and Gregory would be the first black American to hold that position, and to thus be eligible to vote for the next pope.

He replaces Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 78, who resigned in October but stayed on in a temporary caretaker position.

In Gregory, Pope Francis has tapped one of the American church’s most visible Catholic leaders on the problem of sexual abuse, a man who helped write the U.S. church’s first guidelines on ending the abuse scandal, to helm an archdiocese tarnished by the crisis. However, advocates are more pleased than inspired by his record; he is seen as having done far more than his peers at the time, but he has not escaped some criticism.

Neither Gregory nor a Vatican spokesman responded to requests for comments. An Archdiocese of Atlanta spokeswoman did not respond to numerous messages, nor did the Washington archdiocese. The offer to Gregory was first reported by the Catholic News Agency.

The previous two Washington archbishops have found themselves, in different ways, at the center of the Roman Catholic Church’s renewed crisis over clerical sexual abuse and the failure of higher-ups to stop it. Theodore McCarrick, who served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, was forced to step down from the College of Cardinals over summer amid accusations that he had abused minors and young adults earlier in his career.

He was defrocked in February, becoming the highest-ranking Catholic official to ever face such serious punishment for abuse. And Wuerl resigned in October, following a Pennsylvania grand jury report that mentioned him more than 200 times and alleged he protected some abusers within the clergy while serving as bishop in Pittsburgh.

As these events unfolded, Gregory wrote in a letter last year that a “cloud of shame” hung over the church. “People are angry, as well they should be, that our Church is once again viewed as a haven for criminal deviant behavior,” Gregory said.

As president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference between 2001 and 2004, Gregory played a leading role in helping the U.S. bishops draft a new charter for abuse prevention. Those guidelines succeeded in drawing up zero-tolerance guidelines for priests, but they did not improve oversight for bishops who failed to report abuse. Gregory worked to draft the so-called Dallas Charter with McCarrick.

When McCarrick was removed from ministry last year, Gregory said that he “never knew or suspected the hidden side of a man whose admired public persona concealed that of a violator of foundational Christian morality and of young people who trusted him.”

“I now stand dumbfounded that I was so unaware and naïve,” Gregory said.

His archdiocese was not ahead on the issue of releasing names of accused priests. The Atlanta archdiocese only recently released the names of 15 priests and other religious figures accused of sexual abuse of a minor. The list, Gregory wrote, covers the period since Atlanta became a diocese in 1956.

Terry McKiernan, whose abuse-tracking site Bishop Accountability scrutinizes the actions of U.S. bishops, praised Gregory for his leadership in the early 2000s. “I feel positive about the guy,” said McKiernan, though he said Gregory’s early record was not perfect.

“He was put in the hot seat because he was president [of the USCCB] when everything broke, and I think he did in general an admirable job. He rode herd on bishops, many of whom were extremely reluctant to take any measures in 2002. … Some mechanisms came out of that meeting [in Dallas], and Wilton Gregory deserves some credit for that, I think.”

But in 2004, 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.

In a statement released last week, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, noted that Gregory has a reputation as a reformer. “In truth,” SNAP said, “his track record on abuse is poor.”

Wuerl, a trusted ally of Pope Francis known for his cautious leadership style, was given a fond send-off by the Vatican. He was permitted to keep his position in the Roman Curia and was praised by the pope in a letter for his “nobility.”

Wuerl said at the time that new leadership was needed in Washington so the church could "begin to focus on healing and the future.”

Since then, Wuerl’s actions have come under further scrutiny. When the accusations against McCarrick first surfaced publicly, Wuerl suggested he was unaware of any complaints of wrongdoing. But The Washington Post reported that Wuerl had learned of an account of misconduct with a seminarian against McCarrick in 2004 and reported it to the Vatican.

In a letter to priests in the Washington archdiocese, Wuerl subsequently apologized and said it was “never the intention to provide false information.” Wuerl wrote that he had forgotten that he was told in 2004 about the complaint against McCarrick.

“Only afterwards was I reminded of the 14-year-old accusation of inappropriate conduct which, by that time, I had forgotten,” Wuerl wrote. “Nonetheless, it is important for me to accept personal responsibility and apologize for this lapse of memory.”

Until the breakout of the McCarrick and Wuerl scandals, the Washington archdiocese was considered to be largely controversy-free in recent years.

Longtime watchers of the archdiocese say the biggest challenge for a new archbishop will be restoring trust.

“Public credibility is a huge issue” for the new archbishop, said one Catholic who has worked in D.C. Catholic life for many years and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to appear to be criticizing church leadership. “The moral voice of the church is really diminished. The next person has to focus on rebuilding trust.”

Any D.C. archbishop has to decide whether that means wading into the issues that are always at hand on Capitol Hill. Do they want to be seen as a non-news-making moderate, as Wuerl and McCarrick did? Or do they take vocal positions on hot-button issues such as gay marriage, abortion and a border wall?

Gregory has long been rumored as one of the leading candidates to replace Wuerl. He has spent 14 years as the archbishop of Atlanta, where the diocese includes 1.2 million Catholics. Born and raised in Chicago, he performed his graduate studies in Rome, then returned to Illinois, where he served before being named to the post in Atlanta by Pope John Paul II.

Gregory has spoken admiringly about Pope Francis — notable given the climate of the U.S. church, which is divided over the pontiff’s reformist ideas. Gregory was described by a well-known arch-conservative Catholic blog as having a “long history of pro-gay initiatives” after he invited as a speaker an American Jesuit who has advocated that church welcome LGBT members with more compassion.

Gregory also faced pressure last year when an online petition was started with the goal of removing a pastor who counseled survivors of sexual abuse and who was described as being pro-LGBT. Soon after, Gregory was quoted in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution as defending the pastor, saying he was “following the admonition of Pope Francis to accompany people on the periphery of society.”

Gregory has encountered other kinds of controversy within Atlanta, and was forced to apologize in 2014 after the archdiocese built a $2.2 million home for him with money earmarked for charitable causes. Gregory at the time said he would sell the home.

Washington is not one of the country’s biggest dioceses, but it is among the most prominent. The archdiocese sits next to the U.S. government and a slew of faith-based nonprofits that act as advocates on issues including abortion, health care, poverty and school vouchers. The D.C. region is home to some of the U.S. church’s most visible institutions, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; its university, the Catholic University of America; the Basilica of the National Shrine (the country’s biggest Catholic church); and huge charities including Catholic Relief Services (in Baltimore) and Catholic Charities USA.

While McCarrick was a known schmoozer, ostensibly influencing Catholic lawmakers at the highest levels, Wuerl was less visible. The church wound up in a clash with the Obama administration’s health-care law requirement that employers cover birth control. And there has been friction between the church and the Trump White House over immigration, poverty and environmental issues.

Still, Washington’s new archbishop inherits a healthy Catholic community, particularly in comparison with many dioceses in the country’s northeast, where the church is shrinking.

The archdiocese, which includes the District and five suburban Maryland counties, has a growing Catholic population, in large part due to the D.C. area’s economic boom and the influx of heavily Catholic Latino immigrants. Catholics make up about one-fifth of the region’s population.

There are 655,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, 139 parishes and missions, and 93 Catholic schools serving 26,000 students.

Like other parts of the U.S. church, the Catholic school population is down, which experts say is connected to factors including how many people become priests and religious sisters. Wuerl early in his tenure was praised for turning several Catholic schools over to the charter school system, and in recent years, Catholic parents who said their needs were not being met by the archdiocesan system launched independent Catholic schools of their own.

Wuerl launched one of the few new seminaries in the United States, which has a small but steady population. The incoming archbishop will have to work to continue Wuerl’s legacy as an educator of seminarians while freeing himself of the anger some seminarians feel about how Wuerl and McCarrick treated the D.C. church.