Under the grand dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, North America’s largest Catholic church, Gregory was loudly cheered by eight red-robed cardinals, almost 50 bishops and thousands of Catholic faithful, as he held out the paper scroll proclaiming him the Washington archbishop. For many, he represents a beacon of hope, that a new leader can set right a stricken community.
In his first speech to the archdiocese, he acknowledged Catholic leaders’ fault in the sexual abuse crisis — “We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest” — but focused much more on the importance of maintaining faith in Jesus Christ regardless of troubling circumstances.
“When Jesus Christ... finally leads us out of this storm of our own making, may He not feel compelled to admonish us for exhibiting a collective lack of confidence in Him, but rather be proud of the undaunted, uncompromising faith that we never lost,” Gregory lectured.
Many Catholics, of course, have lost faith, or been so hurt by their church that they have turned away. So many have left Catholicism since the sexual abuse crisis was first widely exposed in 2002 that the Pew Research Center reports 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. Those who still identify as Catholics are dissatisfied with many church teachings: 76 percent want permission to use birth control; almost half believe the church should accept gay marriage; about 60 percent think priests should be allowed to marry and women should be allowed to be priests.
And the past year has brought a new wave of scandal, with intense scrutiny of the actions of bishops across the country. Nowhere has that been more acute than Washington, an archdiocese of more than 600,000 Catholics who live in the District and suburban Maryland.
The Washington archdiocese remains healthier than many, with a growing population fueled by immigrants. But it has been sorely tested.
First came the revelation that Theodore McCarrick, Washington’s archbishop from 2001 to 2006 and a highly visible diplomat for years after, had allegedly sexually harassed both minors and adults. Within months, McCarrick became the first U.S. cardinal ever removed from the priesthood for sexual abuse. And in August came the groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report, and in it, allegations that Cardinal Donald Wuerl mishandled abuse cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh. After protests, Wuerl retired from his role as archbishop of Washington in October.
Into this rattled and heartsick archdiocese steps Gregory, a 71-year-old cleric tapped for the job last month by Pope Francis. Gregory has served as archbishop of Atlanta since 2004 and is expected to be made a cardinal soon.
Gregory pledged in his homily that he would be a bishop “who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed.” It was the first line of his address that drew applause.
Many local Catholic leaders expressed hope that he would tackle abuse issues head-on and draw former Catholics back to church. “He is the right person at the right time. He’s a man of great integrity and character,” said Frank Butler, a former staffer for the U.S. bishops conference and retired longtime leader of the Catholic philanthropy group FADICA. “He assumes his leadership when his flock has been deeply wounded. ... Rebuilding trust will be Archbishop Gregory’s greatest challenge.”
Wuerl and Gregory sat beside each other at the front of the basilica during the ceremony on Tuesday, and Wuerl was the first speaker at the Mass. Another stark reminder of the crisis: one of the cardinals on the altar at the basilica was Roger Mahony, whose official ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was curtailed by the current archbishop because of Mahony’s mishandling of abuse cases.
Parishioners in the archdiocese are looking for concrete steps that will signify a change from the old ways, said Pat McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, a Catholic institution in the District. She suggested that Gregory could answer Francis’s recent call to create a system for laypeople to hold bishops accountable for misconduct, and could increase leadership roles for women in the church.
“I think people are eager to get a look at Wilton Gregory. They want to hear him. People are hungry for a new direction. That is his opportunity,” she said.
In the past year, as the McCarrick scandal and the grand jury report seemed to engulf the archdiocese, Wuerl was less visible in public. “Cardinal Wuerl has been pastoral, but he’s very formal and somewhat stiff, if you will,” McGuire said. "That’s not a criticism; it’s just his style. Wilton Gregory is warmer and more personal, and that will go far.”
Eileen Dombo, an assistant professor at Catholic University and chair of the archdiocese’s Child Protection Board, said that she would soon meet with Gregory. “At this point, people are just feeling a lot of pain and anger about what happened with Cardinal McCarrick and hoping more light will be shed so we as a community can move forward,” she said. Parishioners’ feelings about Wuerl are complex, she said. “A lot of people have seen the cardinal do wonderful things in the Archdiocese of Washington. This is bittersweet for some people to see him go.”
Gregory has taken on abuse scandals before — in the first diocese he led as bishop, in Belleville, Ill., in the 1990s, and again in the early 2000s, when he was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the time that Boston Globe investigative reporters exposed the abuse crisis. As president of the bishops conference, Gregory presided over the landmark 2004 Dallas conference, where he helped coax wary bishops to enact a zero-tolerance policy for removing accused abusers from ministry.
In retrospect, many activists now argue that the Dallas conference didn’t go far enough to institute rules to govern the bishops themselves, and some have voiced concerns about Gregory’s stance on the issue in Atlanta. A small group of demonstrators from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests protested the installation on Tuesday. The group said Gregory should make public more information about Washington priests previously accused of abuse, and should not oppose legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for sex crimes in Maryland.
Attendees at the Mass in the ornate basilica included many in Washington’s black Catholic community who were eager to celebrate the first black archbishop in the nation’s capitol, as well as Gregory’s two sisters, and many guests from Gregory’s prior dioceses — Atlanta, Belleville and Chicago.
The Rev. Urey Mark, a Catholic chaplain for colleges in Georgia, came to watch. Before the Mass, he praised Gregory, recalling a time that he told Gregory that some college students were hungry. The archbishop quickly arranged for a donor to provide $4,000 for snacks at the student center that Mark runs in Atlanta. “You are getting a good shepherd who is coming at the right time and at the right moment in history, of our church and of this place," Mark said.
Some black Catholics gathered in a prayer circle outside the basilica before the Mass, with drums and guitars.
Margaret Ricks, 64, of Southeast Washington said she had longed for a new leader who would boldly speak out about Catholic beliefs. “He’s the answer to our prayers,” she said.