The news that Georgia’s attorney general is investigating sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, coming just after Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was chosen for the top job in Washington’s Catholic church, came as yet another blow to those who had been hoping for a relief from scandal when their new archbishop arrives.
Gregory, 71, has been cast as a much-needed reformer for the Archdiocese of Washington. Within the past year, ex-archbishop Theodore McCarrick was disgraced and defrocked after accusations that he committed sexual abuse, and his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the leader of Washington’s Catholics for the past 12 years, retired early due to revelations about his own handling of abuse cases.
When Pope Francis picked Gregory last month to replace Wuerl, many Catholics optimistically heralded Gregory as someone who could clean house.
On Tuesday, Atlanta media cast a pall over that hope, by reporting that the archdiocese that Gregory has led for the past 14 years, in Atlanta, is the latest of dozens of dioceses nationwide to be the target of a criminal investigative probe. The Atlanta archdiocese, home to about 1.2 million Catholics, is one of two dioceses in the state. The Savannah diocese, which has about 77,000 Catholics, is also under investigation.
“Washington is both a wounded church, and a vital and diverse Catholic community. What we don’t need is PTSD [from another investigation]. Hopefully we’ll avoid that. That depends on the result,” said John Carr, who worked with Gregory at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the 2002 crisis and who has spoken out in the past year about his own childhood abuse.
He said he still trusts that Gregory can steer Washington’s Catholics faithfully. “Let me be clear: No one did enough. But Archbishop Gregory showed courage and compassion and urgency in addressing this crisis in 2002 and since then. He has been a leader, and I expect him to continue to be a leader.”
In statements, the Atlanta archdiocese and the Savannah diocese both said that they support the investigation and had entered into a “memorandum of understanding” to provide their cooperation, which seemed to mean access to previously private diocesan files on priests.
The bishops said that the investigation would eventually lead to a published report.
Joe Grace, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, said Wednesday that since that state completed its massive inquiry into sexual abuse by Catholic priests last summer, documenting abuse of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 clergy members over a span of 70 years, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his top staff have spoken with the attorneys general of 45 states. Following Pennsylvania’s example and acting on the belief that similar abuse took place in secret in every state, many of these attorneys general launched investigations last year. Georgia’s Chris Carr is now the latest.
The Georgia attorney general’s office did not respond to questions from The Washington Post, including an inquiry about what prompted the state to announce its investigation now. Chris Carr told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 in a joint interview that the office had been working on putting together this investigation since last summer.
“I heard from those that I go to church with every Sunday, and I saw the level of anger and frustration and distrust,” Chris Carr, who is Catholic, told the Atlanta reporters. “I think it’s important that we hold accountable those that have done wrong but also lift the cloud of suspicion from those that may not have.”
He said that local prosecutors will carry out any criminal cases that emerge from the probe.
Amid the cries for accountability nationwide in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, Gregory was one of many bishops across the country who published lists in the past several months of priests known by their diocese to have been “credibly accused” of abuse. His list, published in November, included 15 people — significantly fewer than many dioceses.
Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said that a significant difference between the number of alleged abusers in the eventual state report and the 15 names on the list would cast doubt on Gregory’s credibility. “The Catholic Church has tried to wipe the slate clean many times, and there’s only so many times you can do that before the stains stick,” Moss said.
Gregory has a lengthy history of leadership on the topic of sexual abuse. The first time he led a diocese was in the 1990s in Belleville, Ill. There, just as he would later be in Washington, he was appointed in the midst of an abuse scandal; he took charge of a diocese in the process of removing priests accused of abuse, long before the topic became a nationwide question.
When it did, in 2002, Gregory was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He pressed hard for a zero-tolerance standard for accused priests, which the U.S. bishops eventually enacted.
That means any newly revealed abuse that took place since 2005, when Gregory became Atlanta’s archbishop, would be particularly concerning, Moss said. “If it turns out he was complicit in any of this or he didn’t act appropriately, that’s going to have a very damaging effect.”
It was the Pennsylvania report that led to Wuerl’s early retirement from the archdiocese Gregory has just been appointed to lead. In that report, the grand jury questioned Wuerl’s record of handling abusers who were under his watch when he was bishop of Pittsburgh. But those cases took place before 2002.
John Gehring, a Catholic author in Washington, said he’s just as hopeful that Gregory will be the reformer needed here as he was before the Georgia investigation was announced.
“I think his record has been pretty clear that he’s taken this crisis seriously for a very long time,” he said. The existence of an investigation doesn’t lessen his faith in Gregory. “As far as coming in with an investigation going on right now in Georgia, sadly this is becoming so commonplace that I don’t think it stands out. … It feels so commonplace now that our leaders are under some form of investigation or at least close to it — as a Catholic now, when you wake up you’re going to be learning about the next investigation."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.