America Comment

Is Archbishop Wilton Gregory the right man for Washington?

Archbishop Wilton Gregory (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

He is certainly a safe pair of hands, but can he clear the skeletons out of Washington's closet?

It’s (almost) official: Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta will be appointed the next Archbishop of Washington, according to Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency.

The office has technically been vacant since the last archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, resigned in October. Wuerl had been damaged by claims that he covered up sex abuse in his previous diocese of Pittsburgh. He had also maintained – in the face of claims to the contrary – that he knew nothing about the predatory sexual activities of his notorious predecessor, Theodore McCarrick.

Washington is perhaps the most sought-after diocese for ambitious American bishops – but a particular kind of bishop. While the Archbishop of New York finds himself rubbing shoulders with media and cultural luminaries, Washington’s archbishop has priceless access to lawmakers and political lobbyists. McCarrick’s talents as a fundraiser and Wuerl’s masterful diplomacy served them well in the post.

But because Washington is at the very heart of the current sex-abuse crisis, the Vatican couldn’t afford simply to hand the see to the next bureaucrat in line.

The Vatican had to decide whether it wanted a reformer who would expose McCarrick’s network of enablers and fellow-predators – or, shall we say, someone more discreet, who would protect the Church’s public image. Which role will Archbishop Gregory play, if he has indeed been chosen?

Gregory, who would be the first African-American Archbishop of Washington, served as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from 2001 until 2004, leading the American bishops through the first chapters of the Spotlight revelations.

It was under his leadership that the USCCB drafted its protocols for handling allegations of predatory priests, known as the “Dallas Charter”. (McCarrick had no role in the drafting process but, like any other bishop, could submit amendments to the text.) Gregory certainly has more experience in dealing with the fallout from clerical sex abuse than most of his brother bishops.

He is not, however, the sort of reformer that conservative Catholics were hoping for. Two years ago he addressed the Association of US Catholic Priests, which promotes married priests and female deacons. Other speakers that year included two hardline supporters of Pope Francis: Fr Thomas Rosica and Professor Massimo Faggioli.

Archbishop Gregory has defended the controversial Fr James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and consultant for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. Ed Condon also reports that Gregory has “close ties” with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, whom many consider the leader of the USCCB’s pro-Francis faction.

In other words, Wilton Gregory is firmly aligned with the well-connected liberals known as “Team Francis”. This might prove useful should Rome wish to exercise more direct control over Washington’s handling of further scandals in the archdiocese.

Conservative Catholics have long distrusted Archbishop Gregory, who was a friend of McCarrick’s and supported the ex-cardinal in appearing to oppose the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s attempts to deny Holy Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

It should be noted, however, that the Archbishop of Atlanta has spoken with evident distress of his “shame” at allowing himself to be hoodwinked by McCarrick. Indeed, he said recently that Catholics were “perplexed and sickened” that the Holy See may have ignored “multiple warning signs” relating to McCarrick and others.

On the other hand, Cardinal Wuerl – a prelate who certainly did ignore those warning signs – may have had a hand in this reported appointment. He and Cardinal Cupich are the only American members of the Congregation for Bishops, which forwards recommendations to the Holy Father.

From the Vatican’s perspective, Archbishop Gregory is certainly a safe pair of hands. Whether he is the man to clear the skeletons out of Washington’s closet remains to be seen.


This article originally described Theodore McCarrick as the “principal author” of the Dallas Charter. This has been corrected to say that “McCarrick had no role in the drafting process but, like any other bishop, could submit amendments to the text”.