News Analysis

Archbishop Gregory is a natural choice – up to a point


Archbishop Wilton Gregory is not Cardinal Joseph Tobin. For that reason alone, many conservative-minded Catholics will be relieved to learn of his appointment as Archbishop of Washington, DC.

After the resignation of Washington’s last archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Tobin was considered the frontrunner to succeed him. That would have made Tobin the chief representative of the Catholic Church in our nation’s capital. The Archbishop of Newark is widely seen as a progressive who answers directly to the Vatican. For that reason, critics doubted whether his reign would see reform on the sex abuse front or lead to any significant action against pro-choice legislators. There would have been a tremendous outcry the moment his appointment was announced.

So, from the Holy See’s perspective, there was a certain tactical advantage in choosing Gregory instead. (It is notable that Wuerl sits on the committee that advises the Pope on episcopal appointments.) Conservatives were so prepared to be outraged at Tobin’s promotion that Gregory’s ascent didn’t garner half the attention it was expected to.

Whether there is any measurable advantage to Gregory’s appointment, however, is a matter of heated debate.

Granted, Gregory is in many ways a natural choice for the post. He served as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from 2001 until 2004, placing him at the helm when America’s bishops first reckoned with the pervasiveness of clerical sex abuse amid the fallout from the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigations. With the current, renewed controversy following the McCarrick scandal, he seems uniquely suited to assume control in Washington. But does his record suggest he’s the ideal man for the job?

During his tenure as USCCB president, Gregory worked with McCarrick. The latter was, like any other bishop, allowed to suggest amendments to the draft of the Dallas Charter, the bishops’ official protocols for addressing accusations of sexual misconduct, which conspicuously excluded any formal procedures for disciplining bishops accused of the same. Many have suggested that McCarrick’s efforts to associate himself with the Charter were actually his ingenious way of deflecting attention from his own depravity.

Gregory has claimed that he was among those duped by McCarrick’s reformist posturing. He likened the revelation of the former cardinal’s abuse of altar boys and seminarians to a “cloud of shame” hanging over the Church – himself included. But conservatives claim that he supported McCarrick in appearing to play down the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s attempts to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Gregory, of course, has promised to be forthright in his leadership of the archdiocese. “Transparency includes sharing what you do know, and it also acknowledges that ‘that’s not something that I’m sure of’ or ‘I simply don’t know’,” he said during a recent press conference. But, he added, “I will always tell you the truth as I understand it.”

That last phrase – “as I understand it” – won’t exactly inspire confidence. Many will demand to know: what’s there to “understand”, exactly? The questions being raised by the laity are pretty straightforward: Is there a paper trail or not? Who is implicated in McCarrick’s predations, and what’s to become of them?

Many Catholics no longer expect change from within. They’ve abandoned their hope that our prelates will be straightforward about their brother bishops’ corruption. Some look to the media – which, for the better part of a year, seemed interested in little else. The backlash from the McCarrick revelations dominated the news cycle since last June.

And yet, as longtime Vatican-watcher Philip Lawler has noted, the media was surprisingly uninterested in scrutinising Gregory’s record when his appointment was announced. “Tough-minded reporters … might have asked the incoming archbishop whether he planned to look into the files and hunt down any evidence of corruption and/or dishonesty in the previous regimes,” Lawler wrote at Catholic World News. “Did you see any of those questions raised in the media coverage of the appointment? Neither did I.”

Others – notably Michael Voris of the campaigning website Church Militant – are waiting for the federal government to launch a full-scale investigation into the hierarchy. With the intense scrutiny by state attorneys into individual dioceses, that’s by no means outside the realm of possibility. Yet that would be deeply disheartening for the laity; it may also compromise the American Church’s legal integrity.

Of course, Archbishop Gregory may opt for the most rigorous inquiry possible, rooting out all the wrongdoers. That would mean releasing all relevant documents held by the archdicocese. This could save the Church – and Gregory himself – a world of grief. Yet, somehow, it’s never that simple.