ROME – Seventeen years ago, a charismatic young African-American bishop of Belleville, Illinois, rose to national prominence as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference at a time when the clerical sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston in 2002, and then quickly rippled across the country.
In a dark moment for the American Church, many Catholics felt Wilton Gregory was a rare point of light. Poised, articulate, and resolute, Gregory led the U.S. bishops in adopting the “Dallas Charter,” the heart of which was a “zero tolerance” policy widely credited today for better detection and reporting mechanisms as well as steep reductions in the number of abuse cases over the last two decades.
Now 71, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Gregory once again finds himself in the eye of a clerical abuse storm, taking over as the Archbishop of Washington after months of anguish capped by the resignation under fire of Cardinal Donald Wuerl in October.
“It’s certainly not the way I wanted to continue my ministry,” Gregory laughed, but added, “I’m not afraid of it.”
“I believe that in our deepest spiritual hearts, our people want this to be handled correctly, and I’ll try to do that to the best of my ability,” he said.
Gregory spoke to Crux on May 16, just five days ahead of his official Installation Mass as the seventh Archbishop of Washington. He’s a Chicago native, having grown up on the city’s South Side and converting to Catholicism in grammar school. He’s a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, and a leading exponent in American Catholicism today of Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach embracing both the Church’s pro-life and peace-and-justice teachings.
Comparing 2002 and today, Gregory said the current wave of the abuse crisis – including ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, and the explosive letters from former papal ambassador Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò alleging that Pope Francis was part of the McCarrick cover-up – is actually worse than what he lived through at the helm of the bishops’ conference in 2002.
“Personally, I think this is a more problematic moment because it involves the credibility of the leadership,” he said.
“In 2002, the difficulties were about the acknowledgement that priests, deacons, churchmen, had harmed children,” he said. “This moment … brings into focus the issue of those in leadership, how they responded, and what role that response played in aggravating the situation.”
“In 2002, the reaction was to scandal,” Gregory said. Today, he said, “the reaction is anger, justifiable anger, at the improper exercise of authority.”
Gregory said he believes the U.S. bishops will adopt some form of the beefed-up oversight role for metropolitan archbishops envisioned by Pope Francis’s recent anti-abuse norms, Vos Estis, as as a means of holding one another accountable for such abuses of authority – though, he stressed, with a strong role for lay participation – so that, he said “it’s not the bishop alone, in isolation, reviewing matters.”
Arguably, no place has been rocked by the most recent wave of scandals more than Washington, where McCarrick was once the archbishop and where his successor, Wuerl, has faced stiff criticism both for the findings of the Pennsylvania report and for what he knew, and when he knew it, about McCarrick.
“It’s unique in the United States,” Gregory said of Washington’s experience, while adding that he nonetheless sees embers of hope.
“In light of that, and perhaps despite that, I have sensed that the people in the Archdiocese of Washington are ready for healing,” he said. “There’s a point where you can’t be angry forever, you can’t be disappointed forever, because it paralyzes you.”
Gregory said he wants to build on that desire for healing.
“I can’t deny what’s happened, but I want to ask the local church to reach deep down in its own history, its own spiritual resources, to say, how do we go forward?”
Gregory said he already has six listening sessions with the priests of the archdiocese set up, and wants to get as many parish visits on his calendar as possible.
“I don’t want to approach this moment telling people what I think we ought to do before listening to them, hearing their feelings, their aspirations, their hopes,” he said.
One tricky matter he faces right out of the gate is how to handle Wuerl’s role in the archdiocese. While he’s become a lightning rod for many in Washington due to the scandals, he’s never been charged with any wrongdoing and remains a cardinal in good standing.
Gregory said he’s spoken to Wuerl, and for the moment the plan is for him to keep a low profile.
“He intends to be a retired archbishop,” Gregory said. “I suspect that at least for the first half-year, maybe longer, all of the events that belong to office of archbishop will be mine, and that he’ll pull back from his high-profile presence.”
“I hope he gets to enjoy his retirement,” Gregory said.
As if navigating the fallout of the abuse crisis weren’t enough, Gregory also becomes the first African-American archbishop of Washington at a time when debates over race and racism are prominent and polarizing elements of the national conversation.
Building on Washington’s African-American Catholic legacy, Gregory said he’s ready for the challenge.
“We’re in a moment in our nation in which racism and nationalism and discrimination and anti-Semitism capture headlines almost daily,” he said.
“I have to try to be an antidote to those who don’t believe we can live together in peace and in harmony,” Gregory said.
More broadly, Gregory said he realizes that being a point person for the Church’s engagement in politics comes with the turf in Washington, saying “I have to do that and I intend to do it.”
By tradition, a new Archbishop of Washington typically meets the U.S. President not long after being installed. Gregory said right now he doesn’t know exactly how that works, even who’s supposed to make the first move, but said he’ll certainly meet President Donald Trump if it’s offered.
“We want to have open, fair, and profitable dialogue with all political entities in this community,” he said. “I welcome that.”
Gregory said he realizes he’s stepping into that role in a deeply polarized moment, not just for the political system and American culture but also, at times, within the Church.
“I belong to a church where as the shepherd, the leader, I have to proclaim the Church’s heritage and teaching, I have to defend it and explain it, but I also need to try to keep everyone on the Barque of Peter,” he said.
“That’s one of the problems with [people with] extreme positions,” he said. “They’re often trying to throw the other side off the bus, claiming to be the only ones worthy of the title ‘Catholic’.”
Gregory said his aim is to “maintain equilibrium, not to be swayed by one extreme or the other.”
As he steps into his new role, Gregory said he’s mindful of Pope Francis’s charge to bishops these days: “The pope is sending a signal to all bishops, me in particular, that my ministerial activity is in the midst of the people, not in the administrative offices of the archdiocese.”
“I have administrative responsibilities I can’t shirk,” he conceded, “but Pope Francis would say to me, ‘You’re most the bishop in the midst of your people’.”
At the end of the day, Gregory said his basic approach to the new gig, despite its complications, is fairly easy to spell out.
“I want to tell the people of the Archdiocese of Washington that based on my experience as a bishop,” he said, “that if you love and serve people generously, they will love you in return … that’s the plan.”