The sight from the podium inside the headquarters of D.C.’s Catholic Church on Thursday was striking: a black archbishop taking the helm — for the first time — of a major American diocese, a dramatic power shift resulting from two successive clergy sexual abuse scandals.
Wilton Gregory, 71, who is beginning an unexpected final act of his career at the behest of Pope Francis, choked back tears as he answered a question familiar to many Catholics today: Amid fresh scandal consuming the church, how have you kept your faith?
Gregory cited the priests and nuns who nurtured him, before he became Catholic, when he was just a child in Chicago in the late 1950s, fleeing a poor public school system.
“I’ve stayed because of the images and the witness of those men and women I first met,” Gregory said, his voice catching as he responded to a reporter at the news conference. He said he thought of the same people in the early 2000s, when he was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the first clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States.
Good priests like those from his youth “should not have to die in shame,” he said. “And I was going to do everything I could to make sure their reputations were protected, honored and respected.”
With that display of emotion and an admission of the fragile state of the church, Gregory began to set a new tone at the top of the Catholic Church in Washington, one of the country’s most politically important — and scandal-tainted — dioceses.
Gregory, who has been archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years, will be installed May 21, the Archdiocese of Washington said.
The appointment of Gregory to replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl ranks among the most important leadership decisions of Pope Francis’s papacy. It positions Gregory, the only living African American U.S. archbishop, to become one of the most visible black voices in the U.S. capital. Given that D.C. archbishops are traditionally named cardinals, Gregory is on a path to become the first black American to receive the title, which would give him the right to vote for pope.
But the move also is designed to stabilize a reeling archdiocese that has become symbolic of the church’s failures to fully contend with clerical sexual abuse. Gregory’s two predecessors, Wuerl and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had become embroiled in scandal — although in very different ways. Wuerl resigned in October amid criticism that he had not responded properly to some abuse allegations. McCarrick was defrocked earlier this year, in a historic penalty, after a church proceeding found him guilty of sexual abuse.
In introducing his successor at the news conference, Wuerl said he has known Gregory for many years and has come to recognize “how generously he shares his talents and his love for the Church.”
“As the Church of Washington opens a new chapter and looks to the future, we can all, with great confidence and enthusiasm, welcome our new shepherd,” said Wuerl, who has stayed on in a caretaker role.
At the morning news conference, Wuerl sat in an armchair positioned next to the lectern that Gregory stood behind.
“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges throughout our entire church, but nowhere more so in this local faith community,” Gregory said.
He pledged transparency, saying he will be active from the outset, traveling around the archdiocese to meet his new flock. He also said he will not be too political.
“I was not elected to Congress,” Gregory said. “My place is in the pews.”
Echoing Francis, he said that the clerical abuse epidemic must be addressed both spiritually and with “technical and structural actions.”
“It’s difficult to come into a situation where there is unrest and anger,” Gregory said, adding that he has learned the “folly” of defending fellow Catholic leaders and “circling the wagons.”
In recent years, Gregory has been a vocal supporter of the pope, whose reformist positions are controversial among U.S. church leaders. Gregory has advocated for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He also has been criticized by traditionalist Catholics after inviting the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit who advocates that the church be more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, as a speaker at several events.
As a new wave of sexual abuse cases has thrown the Catholic Church into crisis, Gregory has been vocal on the topic in his Atlanta archdiocese, answering abuse-related questions from parishioners and saying he grieves for those who have been “disbelieved, neglected or ignored when they came forward.” He said the revelations — including those about McCarrick — proved that “not enough has been done” in the church to stem abuse.
Gregory has been at the helm of some of the U.S. church’s boldest moves on abuse, although he has not escaped criticism. While serving as president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference from 2001 to 2004, he was among the key figures who wrote a new charter for abuse prevention. The cornerstone of those guidelines is a “zero tolerance” policy for priests. But it neglected to improve oversight of bishops who did not report abuse. During that period, Gregory worked closely with McCarrick, then the archbishop of Washington.
In 2004, the diocese led by Gregory, in Belleville, Ill., was found to be in contempt of court for its refusal 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 Atlanta, Gregory was in charge of an archdiocese with 1.2 million Catholics. He was born and raised in Chicago and was appointed to the Atlanta post by John Paul II.
Gregory has been candid about racial issues and appeared on a panel at Georgetown University in 2017, months after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Gregory described an experience he had had two weeks earlier, when he was playing golf at a tony course on Sea Island, Ga.
“So I was dressed in a good golf outfit,” he said. “I’m not saying the game was worthy of respect.” Gregory said he was walking out, “clearly dressed to go play golf.”
A white woman, he said, approached and asked him where the restaurant was.
“She presumed — the presumption was — if a black man was at the Colony, no matter how he was dressed, he was a staffer,” Gregory said. The incident, he said, connected to the idea of “white privilege.”
The Washington archdiocese has one of the country’s most vibrant and historic African American Catholic populations, and Catholic leaders in the area predicted that Gregory’s arrival will be a boost.
About 3 percent of the U.S. Catholic population is black, but in the D.C. Archdiocese that share is about 13 percent.
John Carr, a longtime staff leader at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who worked with Gregory in the early 2000s, said Gregory stood out early on the topic of abuse. Carr recently revealed that he is an abuse survivor.
“Lots of people were saying: ‘This goes too far, too fast. It’s the media. It’s the lawyers.’ And he said: ‘We’re going to do this.’ Nobody did enough, and that’s true of him, but I don’t think there’s anyone who did more than him,” Carr said.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a longtime theology dean at Catholic University of America and a good friend of Gregory’s, said the new D.C. archbishop “sees his immediate job as being a listener, a reconciler.” Irwin added: “That will be his first priority for a very long time. This place is burning. . . . Priests want a bishop who is concerned about them and interested in them at this moment.”
Early reaction among archdiocesan priests was mixed.
The Rev. Raymond Kemp, a D.C. native, assistant to the president of Georgetown University and adviser to students working on peace and justice issues, said his social media feeds “lit up” when word began leaking out in recent days about Gregory’s appointment.
“He’s a man of grace, dignity, and he had a spine when others didn’t” on clerical sexual abuse, Kemp said.
Other priests and seminarians said they were skeptical that Gregory has what it takes to confront the vestiges of the McCarrick scandal. Some of those in leadership positions in the diocese also worked under McCarrick and may have been involved in covering up reports about his misconduct.
“I’d think as a measure of good faith, the new person would [remove people involved in previous scandals] not just because others want it, but because he’d want it,” said a priest in the archdiocese who spoke on the condition of anonymity because priests are normally banned from speaking publicly without permission. “If you want to clean house, where are messy rooms? If you don’t want to know, you don’t want to know.”
Many Catholics are eager to welcome Gregory, said John T. Butler, an African American Catholic who worked for the archdiocese for 25 years in different capacities and was president of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington.
“For people of color and African Americans, it speaks volumes,” said Butler, who attends St. Augustine’s in Northwest Washington, one of the city’s oldest black parishes. He said he is proud of the leadership that Gregory will provide, because many black Catholics were barred from attending American seminaries in past centuries. “For the church to open its arms to a man of integrity and represent that history and a specific ethnic group is powerful.”
Gregory will bring an ease in working with people “that was not characteristic of Cardinal Wuerl,” said Butler, who now works with Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.
“I’ve bumped into him at conferences and followed his work for the church and have always been impressed with him,” he said. “He’s affable, down to earth, brilliant, welcoming, extremely pastoral. We need a shepherd. People will find in Bishop Gregory someone they can easily connect with, and that’s important for healing and building trust.”
Boorstein reported from Washington. Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.