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Archbishop Gregory: the Jimmy Carter of the US Church

During his 14 years as archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton Gregory – appointed the new Archbishop of Washington on April 4 – would certainly have crossed paths with former American president Jimmy Carter. Atlanta is the home of the Carter Center, seat of his post-presidential activities. It’s possible that in whatever conversations they had, the elder statesman spoke about the challenge of restoring trust between the people and their leaders, the challenge Carter faced when he moved from Georgia to a scandal-plagued national capital.

In 1976 Carter campaigned for president as the bland, but trustworthy, former governor of Georgia. The former peanut farmer and Sunday school teacher – his memoirs would be entitled Keeping Faith – promised to restore Americans’ faith in their government after the deceit of the Watergate years.

“I will never tell a lie,” was Carter’s campaign promise, repeated endlessly to draw a contrast with the shiftiness of the Nixon years.

Now another man has moved from Georgia to Washington, and Archbishop Gregory sounded a lot like President Carter upon his arrival.

“First of all, I believe that the only way I can serve this local archdiocese is by telling you the truth,” Archbishop Gregory said. “I will always tell you the truth as I understand it.”

Only after the Watergate years could a man run for president making the rather modest pledge to not lie. And only after the last year in Washington would a new archbishop be wise to begin by promising to meet such a low standard: telling the truth. Failure to meet that low standard has brought great pain upon the Church universal in the last few years, and for the Church in Washington in particular.

We know now that Pope Francis did not give an accurate account of the controversial situation of Bishop Juan Barros and related matters in Chile; the Holy Father in turn blamed that on not being told the truth by his advisers in Chile. The “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused many senior Vatican officials of not telling the truth, and he in turn has been accused of the same.

In Washington, the revelations about their former archbishop, the now laicised Theodore McCarrick, were sacrilegious and revolting: solicitation in Confession and abuse of minors. The subsequent deception of his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was like a blow upon a bruise. After nearly eight months of denying that he knew anything about former Cardinal McCarrick’s misconduct, it was revealed in January that Wuerl himself had reported allegations about McCarrick to Rome in 2004.

Regarding his steadfast denials through 2018, Cardinal Wuerl said that he had forgotten his report to Rome about the then Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. Many found that explanation unconvincing.

So Archbishop Gregory begins his mission with something as basic as telling the truth. Perhaps he added “as I understand it” in fraternal charity to Cardinal Wuerl, who was at his side at the introductory press conference. Wuerl has insisted – with apologies – that he told the truth as he understood it, due to his memory lapses.

One of the first orders of business for Archbishop Gregory will be to report in detail on what was known in Washington about McCarrick; all four dioceses where McCarrick served are doing internal reviews. Telling the truth about all that may well be very painful.

How quickly did Cardinal Wuerl forget that he had written to Rome in 2004 about McCarrick? Did he forget so quickly that he never informed his fellow bishops?

Now in Rome, former Washington auxiliary Cardinal Kevin Farrell has also insisted that he never heard a whisper about McCarrick’s misconduct. It now falls to Archbishop Gregory to evaluate the veracity of that claim.

It is not an enviable task. Archbishop Gregory will be 75 years old in less than four years – less than a single presidential term in Washington parlance. Carter served only a single term, and was not considered to have been a successful president. But he did tell the truth, and that was no small thing then. It remains no small thing now.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca