Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory appointed to Washington, D.C.
The long wait officially is over. On April 4, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta as archbishop of Washington, D.C., filling the role left vacant after the resignation of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl was accepted by the pope in October. He will be installed on May 21.
The much-anticipated appointment, about which rumors and speculation have circulated for months, comes on the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The first African-American archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Gregory also likely will be named the first African-American cardinal in U.S. history. In 2001, he was the first African-American to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he has led the Archdiocese of Atlanta since his installation in 2005.
Conversion, early career
Hailing from Chicago’s south side, Archbishop Gregory came from a poor working-class family. Following his parents’ divorce, his maternal grandmother moved in with the family and provided for his education at a local Catholic school by washing and cooking for the school’s Dominican sisters.
Almost immediately after entering the school, Gregory developed a fascination with Catholic liturgy and felt a desire to become a priest. His pastor joked at the time, “Don’t you think it would help if you become a Catholic first?” Soon after, the sixth-grader was baptized.
Archbishop Gregory was a product of the “Chicago system” of priestly preparation, having attended the now-closed Quigley South Preparatory Seminary, Niles College and Mundelein Seminary. After his 1973 ordination, he was sent to study at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy. After returning to Chicago, Gregory, who was trusted and respected by Chicago Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin, did not remain a diocesan priest for long. In 1983, at only 35, he was named one of the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops.
Archbishop Gregory developed what would become a long-standing reputation as an effective and competent leader. In 1994, then-Bishop Gregory was appointed to the downstate Illinois diocese of Belleville, across the river from St. Louis. At the time, his new diocese was consumed by cases of clergy sexual misconduct, and he made handling them his top priority.
He was effective in doing so. Working alongside laity for a full investigation, he took heat for removing priests from active ministry. And in 2001, he became the first bishop in the country to disclose the financial costs of the abuse cases, including everything from legal fees to settlements. What he encountered upon arrival in Belleville was writ large in 2002 when, as president of the USCCB, he led the American hierarchy as they collectively grappled for the first time with the national scope of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and cover-ups.
Under his leadership, the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — a watershed document notable, in part, for enacting a so-called “zero tolerance” policy in response to abuse by priests. That the focus of the charter remained only on young people and priests, and didn’t include any mention of homosexuality, accountability of bishops or abuse of adults, are flaws that Archbishop Gregory now will be forced to face in Washington.
“The charter is not perfect,” Archbishop Gregory admitted in 2002. “More needs to be done,” he added, emphasizing that what took place in Dallas was the start of something and not the finish. He also said that while the Charter was not “a panacea,” it “removes the secrecy and the uncertainty which has undermined the confidence of the laity. It eliminates the barriers to full disclosure.” Unfortunately, after 2018, we know that was not completely the case.
A new era
Archbishop Gregory’s new assignment in the nation’s capital comes after months of speculation and anticipation in the wake of the archdiocese’s emergence as the epicenter of the 2018 clergy sexual abuse crisis. He succeeds Cardinal Wuerl, whose resignation was accepted last fall after questions emerged in August regarding his handling of some cases of clergy sexual abuse while bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006. It had already been a tough summer for Cardinal Wuerl, who was under scrutiny regarding what he may or may not have known about the sexual misconduct perpetrated by his own predecessor in Washington, the now-laicized former cardinal and sexual predator Theodore E. McCarrick.
All eyes will now be on Archbishop Gregory for leadership and for answers. Chief among the goals of Washington’s new chief shepherd likely will be to restore a relationship of trust between episcopacy, particularly at a local level, with the laity and clergy — a problem he acknowledged in August following McCarrick’s resignation. “Our people are disappointed with bishops in general who seemingly cannot or will not act decisively to heal this festering wound,” he said. He also will be expected to answer the persisting questions of “who knew what and when?” about McCarrick.
The challenge ahead
At 71, Archbishop Gregory no doubt envisioned spending the remaining years of his active ministry in Atlanta. Now, however, he faces something of a Herculean task to right the ship in Washington, and nationally, after a stormy 2018.
While the focus of 2002’s crisis was on the protection of children who were victimized by priests, the 2018 chapter centers more on episcopal misconduct and accountability, and the abuse of vulnerable adults, including seminarians. What remains to be seen is if Archbishop Gregory will be as vociferous in his commitment to transparency and accountability under these circumstances as he was in Dallas.
Archbishop Gregory might have provided back in 2002 the best description of the challenge he now faces, when he spoke of how the buzz surrounding his status as the first African-American USCCB president quickly faded in the wake of the first abuse crisis revelations.
“There is a blessing about that,” he said. “The blessing is that people are looking to me for gifts rather than for race, for wisdom rather than for heritage, for courage rather than for preconceived notions of what black people think or will do. And when [the crisis] is over, and it will be over, I hope that I will be judged, as Dr. King said, by the content of my character.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.
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