The Rise of Wilton Gregory, the First African-American Cardinal

By Christina Morales
New York Times
October 25, 2020

Archbishop Wilton Gregory last year at St. Augustine Church in Washington.
Photo by Andrew Harnik

Archbishop Gregory converted to Catholicism and decided to join the priesthood after he was enrolled in a parochial school in Chicago as a child.
Photo by Scott Olson

Archbishop Gregory was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2001, becoming the first Black cleric to lead it.
Photo by Andrew Harnik

In 2002, under Archbishop Gregory’s leadership, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward the abuse of minors by priests.
Photo by Franco Origlia

Archbishop Gregory led the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s response to its sexual abuse crisis and more recently has pushed for better race relations in the church. Here is what we know about him.

Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a leader of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church’s response to its sexual abuse crisis, was among 13 new cardinals that Pope Francis announced on Sunday. The move positions Archbishop Gregory, 72, to become the first African-American cardinal next month.

He has been a national figure since 2002, when, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he presided over the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy toward priests guilty of sexual abuse. He was elevated from his position as the bishop of Belleville, Ill., to lead the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2005 before Francis installed him in Washington last year.

In recent months, Archbishop Gregory has pushed for better race relations in the church, saying it was important that young Black Catholics see church leaders who look like them.

“We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony,” he said at a Mass in August commemorating the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Archbishop Gregory was raised in a working-class family in Chicago, The Washington Post reported. Neither of his parents were Catholic.

His mother and grandmother enrolled him in a parochial school when he entered the sixth grade. Within six weeks, he decided he was going to become a priest and converted to Catholicism, according to The Post. He was ordained as a priest in Chicago in 1973, when he was in his mid-20s.

He was mentored by one of the church’s most influential modern American leaders, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who tried to steer the church in a more liberal direction.

In 1993, Archbishop Gregory was appointed as the bishop of Belleville, Ill., outside St. Louis. In the early 1990s, the Belleville Diocese removed several priests who had been accused of abuse, most of them before Archbishop Gregory’s arrival, according to The Post.

Archbishop Gregory was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2001, becoming the first Black cleric to lead it.

In 2004, he was named archbishop of Atlanta, where he encouraged a welcoming environment for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“These men and women are the sons and daughters of the church, and yet in too many cases they have not felt welcomed or respected,” he said in a statement in 2014. He added, “We have a pastoral obligation to reach out to all men and women in the same manner that Christ did so effectively even when they found themselves outside of the religious and cultural norms of His own times.”

He was the face of the American church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis.

In 2002, when Archbishop Gregory was the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was an architect of the zero-tolerance policy that the church adopted in response to its clerical sexual abuse crisis. The bishops’ conference adopted a binding national policy whose centerpiece was a mandate to remove from ministry any priest known to have ever abused a minor and to report child sexual abuse to the civil authorities.

The bishops retreated from an earlier stance that would have taken the more punitive step of asking the pope to defrock — or reduce to layman’s status — every egregious and multiple offender. That shift left the document — and Archbishop Gregory — open to criticism.

“He’s better than most, but by no means a saint,” David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in 2004, adding that Archbishop Gregory had started out well but had failed to drive the reforms home.

He took over a Washington Archdiocese tainted by scandal.

In April 2019, Francis named Archbishop Gregory the archbishop of Washington. He was the first African-American to lead the archdiocese, which had been without a leader for nearly six months.

His predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, had resigned the previous October after he was named in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that accused church officials of covering up sexual abuse. Cardinal Wuerl had succeeded Thomas E. McCarrick, whom Pope Francis defrocked in February 2019 after church officials found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades. Mr. McCarrick was the first American cardinal to be removed from the priesthood.

Archbishop Gregory promised to restore confidence in the archdiocese. “To establish trust, you have to begin with truth,” he said. “That’s the first step.”

In recent months, Archbishop Gregory has urged church leaders to improve race relations. Recalling his time as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and said it was important for young Black Catholics to feel represented.

“Ours is the task and the privilege of advancing the goals that were so eloquently expressed 57 years ago by such distinguished voices on that day,” he said at the Mass commemorating the anniversary of the March on Washington. “Men and women, young and old, people of every racial and ethnic background are needed in this effort.”

In June, Archbishop Gregory staunchly criticized President Trump for visiting the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington a day after protesters were forcibly moved so the president could walk cross Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people, even those with whom we might disagree,” Archbishop Gregory said in a statement. He added that Pope John Paul II “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”


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