Vatican Names First Black Archbishop of Washington

New archbishop seen as a sign for hope for a demoralized diocese

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Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Courtesy Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was named by the Vatican today to be the next archbishop of Washington, succeeding Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who earlier stepped down as Washington’s archbishop because of his role in the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy abuse scandal.

“I would be naive not to acknowledge the unique task that awaits us,” Gregory told those at a press conference today. Seated next to him was Wuerl, who said: “As the Church of Washington opens a new chapter and looks to the future, we can all, with great confidence and enthusiasm, welcome our new shepherd.”

Gregory, 71, headed the Archdiocese of Atlanta for 14 years. As head of  the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference from 2001 to 2004, he added new church guidelines concerning clergy abuse, such as zero tolerance. Today, Gregory said that the church’s abuse scandal must be met with “technical and structural actions.”

The new archbishop — who begins his work May 21 — will be Washington’s first black to lead the archdiocese, which is a power center for American Catholics. He is also in line to become a cardinal of the church.

The oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, Georgetown University, reacted with enthusiasm to Gregory’s appointment.

“His unique voice and leadership in the American Church on the most pressing issues facing Catholics today is inspiring,” said the Rev. Mark Bosco, vice president of mission and ministry at the university. “We look forward to working on the ways that Georgetown can collaborate with Archbishop Gregory and the Washington Archdiocese in the work of reconciliation and promoting a faith that does justice.”

“The appointment of Wilton Gregory as archbishop of Washington is significant considering that the Washington metro area is the heart of black Catholic history in the United States,” said Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African American studies at the university. “I think that his appointment represents a long overdue recognition of the fact that there are millions of Catholics of African descent who yearn to see themselves represented in the church’s leadership.

“Archbishop Gregory’s appointment on April 4 is a poignant reminder of the history of racial violence against African Americans, who organized  among faith communities and demanded the nation take responsibility for its deep investment in maintaining white supremacy,” Chatelain continued. “I hope Archbishop Gregory’s move from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., will be the first step in helping American Catholics initiate racial justice work within their parishes and schools.”

“He speaks up for the unborn, undocumented, poor and vulnerable,” said John Carr, the university’s director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. “He embraces Pope Francis’s mission and message. An African American archbishop in the nation’s capital is a powerful sign of hope … No one has done enough on clerical sexual abuse, but Archbishop Gregory showed determination and commitment in leading the effort to adopt the Dallas Charter, zero tolerance and lay review boards in 2002.

“Washington is both a demoralized diocese and a vital and diverse local Church,” Carr concluded. “Archbishop Gregory is a pastor who can help us deal with our hurt and anger and a leader who can help renew our sense of mission. He offers a promising new beginning after a terrible time.”

Theodore McCarrick, Washington’s archbishop from 2001 to 2006, is now a former cardinal and defrocked priest and was found guilty by the church of sexual crimes against adults and minors.

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