Wilton Gregory, a longtime Catholic cleric who has been a leader in the church’s efforts to address its sexual abuse crisis for more than two decades, was installed Tuesday as Washington’s first African American archbishop.
Gregory takes the helm of one of the most prominent Catholic dioceses, in the nation’s capital, at a time when the church is once again under siege. The new archbishop must reassure local Catholics stunned by the misdeeds of the previous two archbishops, while the Vatican fumbles its way toward more effective approaches to preventing abuse and disillusioned American members leave the church.
Under the grand dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, North America’s largest Catholic church, Gregory was loudly cheered by eight red-robed cardinals, almost 50 bishops and thousands of Catholic faithful, as he held out the paper scroll proclaiming him the Washington archbishop. For many, he represents a beacon of hope, that a new leader can set right a stricken community.
In his first speech to the archdiocese, he acknowledged Catholic leaders’ fault in the sexual abuse crisis — “We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of this current tempest” — but focused much more on the importance of maintaining faith in Jesus Christ regardless of troubling circumstances.
“When Jesus Christ… finally leads us out of this storm of our own making, may He not feel compelled to admonish us for exhibiting a collective lack of confidence in Him, but rather be proud of the undaunted, uncompromising faith that we never lost,” Gregory lectured.
Many Catholics, of course, have lost faith, or been so hurt by their church that they have turned away. So many have left Catholicism since the sexual abuse crisis was first widely exposed in 2002 that the Pew Research Center reports 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. Those who still identify as Catholics are dissatisfied with many church teachings: 76 percent want permission to use birth control; almost half believe the church should accept gay marriage; about 60 percent think priests should be allowed to marry and women should be allowed to be priests.
And the past year has brought a new wave of scandal, with intense scrutiny of the actions of bishops across the country. Nowhere has that been more acute than Washington, an archdiocese of more than 600,000 Catholics who live in the District and suburban Maryland.
The Washington archdiocese remains healthier than many, with a growing population fueled by immigrants. But it has been sorely tested.
First came the revelation that Theodore McCarrick, Washington’s archbishop from 2001 to 2006 and a highly visible diplomat for years after, had allegedly sexually harassed both minors and adults. Within months, McCarrick became the first U.S. cardinal ever removed from the priesthood for sexual abuse. And in August came the groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report, and in it, allegations that Cardinal Donald Wuerl mishandled abuse cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh. After protests, Wuerl retired from his role as archbishop of Washington in October.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein