As the U.S. Catholic Church faces what is arguably the greatest challenge in its history, Pope Francis has tapped the man who guided the U.S. bishops through the 2002 sexual abuse crisis to lead the archdiocese of the nation’s capital, after its long-serving cardinal resigned under fire last year for his handling of abuse cases earlier in his career.

At the same time, the pope has also named the first African-American prelate to lead an archdiocese seen as one of the centers of African-American culture in the United States, with a timed announcement that coincides with the 51st anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After months of speculation, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, 71 and past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has been named as the new archbishop of Washington.

The announcement was made jointly by the Holy See Press office and the USCCB on Thursday.

“I am deeply grateful to Pope Francis for this appointment to serve the Archdiocese of Washington and to work with all of the members of this faith community,” said Gregory in a statement. “I look forward to encountering and listening to the people of this local Church as we address the issues that face us and continue to grow in the Love of Christ that sustains us.”

Gregory succeeds Cardinal Donald Wuerl who stepped down in October under pressure following scrutiny of his handling of sex abuse cases during his time as bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a rare move, Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation but issued a letter of praise for Wuerl’s actions in seeking the good of his archdiocese over his own personal interests. He also appointed Wuerl to serve as apostolic administrator until his successor was named.

Wuerl also issued a statement welcoming Gregory as the seventh archbishop of Washington.

“I join all who appreciate his pastoral abilities, his intellectual gifts and his leadership qualities,” said Wuerl. “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.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Gregory converted to Catholicism while in grade school. He was ordained a priest at age 25 and after his ordination earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome.

He was first ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago in 1983 where he served under his mentor Cardinal Joseph Bernardin before becoming bishop of Belleville, Illinois in 1994.

During his time in Belleville, Gregory was faced with the task of cleaning up a diocese wrecked by clerical sexual abuse, with more than 30 people alleged to have been abused by priests of the small diocese of 110,000 Catholics at the time.

His experience in Belleville would prepare him for his role as president of the USCCB, which he led from 2001 to 2004. During the first year of his term, he was faced with spearheading the bishops’ response to the devastating fallout from the clerical abuse crisis, triggered by the Boston Globe’s 2002 coverage of it.

At a critical June 2002 meeting in Dallas, Gregory led the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, now commonly referred to as the “Dallas Charter,” where the U.S. bishops implemented a “zero tolerance” policy toward priests found guilty of abuse.

“We must ensure that every child in America is protected from sexual abuse by a priest or any representative of the Church,” he declared during his presidential address, leading to a standing ovation from his fellow bishops.

While Gregory has been largely praised for his leadership in pushing through the new policy - including efforts to garner Vatican approval for the policy which many in Rome viewed critically - the events of the last year has made it evident to many that the Charter fails to hold bishops to the same standards as priests.

Many observers believe that no bishops’ conference president before or since ever faced the pressure and public scrutiny that surrounded Gregory’s term.

In December 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed Gregory to lead the archdiocese of Atlanta.

During his time in Atlanta, the diocese has grown to 1.2 million Catholics, where Gregory has been an outspoken figure against racism, the death penalty, and euthanasia. He has also regularly written on liturgy and currently serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship.

In Washington, he will lead a considerably smaller diocese of 655,000 Catholics. Yet as the top Catholic in the nation’s capital, he will likely be expected to liaison with the White House and Congress on behalf of the U.S. bishops at a time when tensions between the Church and the administration are high.

John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and a parishioner in the Washington archdiocese, told Crux that he believes Gregory will be a bridge-builder who seeks to “listens before he speaks.”

“Archbishop Gregory is a great choice because he’s someone who builds bridges and brings a sense of humility to the job,” said Gehring. “He has the daunting task of trying to unite people in a divided church while also speaking truth to power at a time when the president of the United States has used his bully pulpit to sow fear of immigrants and stoke racial animosity. That’s both his challenge and his opportunity.”

By virtue of his office, Gregory will also serve as Chancellor of the Catholic University of America.

In a letter released soon after the announcement, Catholic University of America president John Garvey said “The Archbishop-elect brings many gifts and valuable experience to the nation’s capital, where he will serve as a shepherd to a Church in crisis.”

“I look forward to cooperating with him on efforts that seek to combat the evil of sexual abuse and to contribute to the renewal and rebuilding of the Church,” Garvey continued.

The installation Mass for Gregory has been scheduled for May 21.


Highlights

Crux is an exclusive editorial partner of Angelus News, providing news reporting and analysis on Vatican affairs and the universal Church.