Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington, D.C., the Vatican announced Thursday.
Gregory, who served as archbishop of Atlanta, will be the seventh archbishop of Washington and the first African American to lead the Catholic Church in D.C.
“I am deeply grateful to Pope Francis for this appointment to serve the Archdiocese of Washington and to work with all of the members of this faith community,” Gregory said in a news release. “I look forward to encountering and listening to the people of this local Church as we address the issues that face us and continue to grow in the Love of Christ that sustains us.”
The 71-year-old succeeds Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as archbishop of Washington from 2006 to October 2018, when he resigned after a Pennsylvania grand jury report was released alleging the Wuerl — who was then bishop of Pittsburgh — did little to stop predator priests. Wuerl and many of his supporters vehemently deny that accusation.
“I have known Archbishop Gregory for many years,” Wuerl said in a statement. “In working with him on a range of pastoral initiatives and programs, I have come to recognize how generously he shares his talents and his love for the Church.”
Gregory headed the U.S. bishops conference when it adopted a "zero-tolerance" abuse policy in 2002 to respond to the first wave of the scandal. He has run the Atlanta archdiocese since 2005 and is seen as a pastor very much in line with Francis' progressive vision of the church.
It is the third major move by Francis to reshape the U.S. hierarchy, which over the previous two papacies took on a culture war-influenced conservative tilt. Francis began elevating more moderate pastors in 2014, when he named Cardinal Blase Cupich as Chicago archbishop and followed up two years later by moving Joseph Tobin to Newark, New Jersey, and making him a cardinal.
Gregory’s installation will take place May 17.
Pope Saint John Paul II appointed Gregory as the sixth archbishop of Atlanta Dec. 9, 2004.
The Auxiliary Bishops of Washington released statements in support of Gregory, saying they receive the news with great joy.
"This appointment reflects the Holy Father’s love for our local church, for each one of us, and, especially, for our immigrant families in the Archdiocese," Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville said in a statement.
“Archbishop Gregory will be able to identify with, and compassionately serve all of the people of this archdiocese, who represent very diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds," Bishop Roy E. Campbell, Jr. said.
The archdiocese became embroiled in the abuse crisis since its previous two leaders — Wuerl and his predecessor Theodore McCarrick — have been implicated in the scandal.
Francis in February defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican-backed investigation concluded he sexually abused minors and adults over his long career. It was the first time a cardinal had been dismissed from the priesthood for abuse.
Francis reluctantly accepted Wuerl’s resignation in October after he lost the trust of his priests and parishioners in the months following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The report accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about McCarrick’s misconduct, which was an open secret in U.S. and Vatican circles.
Gregory, by contrast, is still credited for his leadership of the U.S. church during a moment of crisis, when as president of the U.S. bishops conference he persuaded church leaders to adopt toughened penalties for abusers in 2002.
“Gregory has impeccable credentials for dealing with the sex abuse crisis, which is essential for healing the church,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, an expert on the American church, said in a column Thursday at Religion News Service.