New Washington archbishop is first African American in that role

04 April 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Pope Francis has named Archbishop Wilton Gregory the Archbishop of Washington, succeeding Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, 71, is the Archbishop of Atlanta, where he has served since 2004.

Gregory will be the first African-American Archbishop of Washington, a historic milestone for the Church in the United States underscored by the April 4 anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s assassination 51 years ago.

“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 said.

The announcement confirms Catholic News Agency’s  March 28 report that the pope had offered Gregory the post to take over for Wuerl, who has acted as an interim administrator of the archdiocese since Pope Francis accepted his resignation in October 2018.

The Archbishop of Washington is viewed as one of the most influential Churchmen in the United States; the five most recent archbishops were all created cardinals – including the now-laicized Theodore McCarrick.

The archbishop will assume leadership after months of scandal in the Church in the U.S. The Archdiocese of Washington has often been at the epicentre of the scandal.

Gregory, who served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, helped lead the American hierarchy through the fallout of the Church’s 2002 sexual abuse scandals. He oversaw the formation and implementation of the Dallas Charter and USCCB’s Essential Norms – policies and procedures to address allegations of sexual abuse – in 2002.

Wuerl’s record as a bishop came under scrutiny last year, following the revelation of credible allegations of sexual misconduct by McCarrick, and the subsequent release of a grand jury report detailing decades of abuse allegations in six Pennsylvania dioceses, including the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where Wuerl served as bishop from 1988 to 2006.

Amid calls for Wuerl’s resignation and demonstrations outside of his Washington residence, the cardinal sent a letter to Pope Francis in September 2018 requesting that his resignation be accepted.

Wuerl, 78, had originally submitted his resignation on Nov. 12, 2015, when he turned 75 years old, as required by canon law.

The pope accepted his resignation in October 2018, but at the same time named Wuerl apostolic administrator of the archdiocese until the appointment of a permanent successor.

In January 2019 it was revealed that an allegation of misconduct against now-laicized Theodore McCarrick was reported to Wuerl in 2004, despite his insistence he knew nothing about McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct until 2018.

As the Catholic leader of the American capital, the Archbishop of Washington is generally expected to walk a narrow line: articulating the Church’s teaching in the middle of the national political conversation, without appearing to be partisan.

A Chicago native, Gregory converted to Catholicism as a student in a Chicago Catholic grade school. In 1971, he was ordained a priest in Chicago by Cardinal John Cody. Consecrated bishop at age 36, Gregory served as an auxiliary bishop in his home diocese under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin from 1983 until 1994 when he was made Bishop of Belleville, Illinois.

As Archbishop of Atlanta, Gregory has ordained 64 men to the priesthood and overseen the welcoming of more than 16,000 people as converts into the Catholic Church.

“I have known Archbishop Gregory for many years.  In working with him on a range of pastoral initiatives and programs, I have come to recognize how generously he shares his talents and his love for the Church,” Wuerl said of Gregory’s appointment.

“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,” he said.