By Elizabeth Dias, New York Times
Pope Francis has named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta as the new Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, hoping to end a tumultuous period for a pivotal diocese whose recent leaders have been at the center of the church’s sexual abuse crisis in the United States.
Archbishop Gregory, 71, becomes the first African-American bishop to lead the archdiocese, a position that puts him to in line to become the country’s first African-American cardinal. He has led the archdiocese of Atlanta since 2005.
The archdiocese of Washington has been without an official leader for nearly six months, and the appointment replaces one of Pope Francis’ closest allies in the American church. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who became archbishop of Washington in 2006, resigned in October after he was named in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that accused church officials of covering up sexual abuse.
Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and the archbishop of Washington before Cardinal Wuerl, was defrocked in February after church officials found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades. It was the first time an American cardinal has been removed from the priesthood.
The Vatican announced Archbishop Gregory’s appointment in its daily bulletin. In Washington, Cardinal Wuerl welcomed Archbishop Gregory as the region’s new leader in a side-by-side news conference Thursday morning. His installation will take place on May 21.
“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges,” Archbishop Gregory said, adding that that was true “nowhere more so than in this local faith community.”
“We will reclaim the future,” he said. “It is my only aspiration.”
The archdiocese of Washington is an historically significant posting. It covers the nation’s capital, the Catholic University of America, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.
Cardinal Wuerl said when he resigned that he was “stepping aside to allow for new leadership that doesn’t have this baggage.”
His resignation divided the Washington region and frustrated many victims’ advocates who saw it as an insufficient consequence for his actions. Though Pope Francis accepted his resignation, the pontiff defended him as a model bishop and named him the caretaker of the archdiocese until a successor was named. Cardinal Wuerl continues to serve in powerful Vatican offices, including one that advises the pope on bishop appointments.
At this critical juncture, Archbishop Gregory began his tenure by defending “the integrity” of Cardinal Wuerl and also acknowledging that he made mistakes. “If I can shed light on what I think we need to do in response to some of them mistakes that he has acknowledged and asked forgiveness for,” he said, “I will do that.”
Archbishop Gregory was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, when sexual abuse scandals erupted in Boston. He pushed to pass the Dallas Charter, which instituted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse of minors.
“From this day forward,” said Archbishop Gregory, who was then the bishop of Belleville, Ill., “no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States. We bishops apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests, and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse.”
At a time of gentrification in Washington and racial tensions nationwide, the appointment is especially significant for the region’s African-American Catholic community. The appointment is expected to come exactly 51 years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, said in an interview that Archbishop Gregory was a positive choice for the region, especially because of his history of pushing the bishops to action on sexual abuse. “Archbishop Gregory is somebody who has helped to lead the way out of it before,” said Mr. Garvey. “He has experience that, aside from Cardinal O’Malley, not a lot of people have.”
In Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory has been known for his closeness to Pope Francis’ vision. He commissioned an innovative action plan after the pontiff’s signature encyclical on the environment in 2015, with practical steps for Catholics to protect the environment at church and at home. He has called on Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. The diocese has grown to 1.2 million Catholics under his leadership.
Last fall, Archbishop Gregory invited the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest, to Atlanta to speak on welcoming L.G.B.T. Catholics, a decision that angered many conservative activists. In an interview, Father Martin called him “one of the most compassionate and open-minded bishops” when it came to supporting L.G.B.T. Catholics, their families and parishes.
“The Holy Father’s selection of Archbishop Gregory shows that he wanted someone who was thoughtful, progressive and open-minded to lead one of the most important archdioceses in the world,” Rev. Martin said.
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.