Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory becomes first African American to lead D.C.’s Catholic Archdiocese

After scandal rocked the Washington archdiocese, a new leader is stepping in to move the church there in a new direction

Wilton Gregory
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a news conference at Washington Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Md.

In the wake of the child sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church, Pope Francis has named Atlanta archbishop Wilton Gregory to lead the Washington, D.C. archdiocese on Thursday, making him the first African-American to hold the position.

The appointment of Gregory, 71, comes after former archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, submitted his resignation in October after being linked to the child sexual abuse scandal.

According to the Associated Press, Wuerl was implicated in covering up abuse by a Pennsylvania grand jury report which claims that he protected child molesting priests. Wuerl’s predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was also implicated for reportedly sexually abusing minors throughout his career. In February he became the first cardinal to be defrocked for abuse.

READ MORE: Pope Francis vows that the Catholic Church will “never again” cover up clergy sex abuse

“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges throughout our entire Catholic Church, certainly, but nowhere more so that in this local faith community,” Gregory said at a Thursday press conference in Washington. “And as in any family, challenges can only be overcome by a firmly articulated resolve and commitment to do better, to know Christ better to love Christ better, to serve Christ better. I would be naive not to acknowledge the unique task that awaits us.”

The AP noted that Gregory may have been a top contender for his support of Pope Francis’ progressive direction for the church. The Chicago native headed the U.S. bishops conference after it adopted a “zero-tolerance” abuse policy in 2002. Gregory supported Francis’ vision while heading the archdiocese in Atlanta since 2005.

Despite his track record, Gregory has not been able to escape controversy himself. The AP reports that in 2014, the Atlanta archdiocese was accused of using $2.2 million in donations to buy and renovate a new home for the archbishop. He would later apologize and the mansion was sold after public outrage.

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But with experience having handled a scandal of his own, Gregory has won praise and many are confident that he will be able the ability to handle the crisis in the church, while Pope Francis continues to work toward reform.

“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 for Religion News Service on Thursday.

The Rev. James Martin, a leading author and Jesuit priest, said in a statement that Gregory was a “superb choice”  and is “someone who knows how to reach out to marginalized populations.”