Updated 3:00pm E.T.
A shadow of scandal hanging over the Washington, D.C. archdiocese has been lifted with the appointment of a new archbishop, Wilton Gregory, currently leading the archdiocese of Atlanta.
Gregory, 71, is generally well regarded in the church, having served as a bishop for 35 years, including a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the only living African-American archbishop in the United States, and with his appointment in Washington, Gregory is poised to become the first African-American cardinal from the United States.
At a press conference in Washington D.C. on Thursday, Gregory pledged to give the faithful reasons to stay with the church. "I want to offer you hope. I will rebuild your trust," he pledged. "I cannot undue the past. But I sincerely believe that together we will not merely address the moments where we have fallen short or failed outright, but we will model for all the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The archdiocese of the nation's capital is considered one of the most important in the country, hosting the Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine, the largest Catholic church in North America. By tradition, the pope names the D.C. archbishop as a cardinal.
Gregory will be challenged to restore the trust and prestige normally accorded to the D.C. archdiocese. His immediate predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, resigned in October of last year after facing allegations that as the bishop of Pittsburgh he failed to deal aggressively with priests accused of sexual abuse.
Wuerl's own predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked and forced to resign from the College of Cardinals last year in response to allegations that he had abused young seminarians during his tenure as archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.
"This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges, throughout our entire Catholic church certainly, but nowhere more so than this local faith community," said Gregory on Thursday. "I would be naïve not to acknowledge the unique task that awaits us."
Gregory took over the leadership of the U.S. bishops conference in 2001, just prior to the explosive revelations of widespread clergy sex abuse in the Boston archdiocese. He was a prominent force behind the adoption of a 2002 charter mandating new steps Catholic leaders were required to take when facing reports of sex abuse by priests.
In Washington, Gregory may have to move quickly to make his mark, however. Bishops are obligated to offer their resignation when they reach the age of 75, though the pope may choose to keep them in their positions.
As the most prominent African-American Catholic bishop, Gregory has been a strong voice for civil rights and tolerance. His appointment as the D.C. archbishop comes on the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorating the event last year in a homily at a remembrance mass in Atlanta, Gregory said the nation was dealing with "as problematic" a political situation as it faced in 1968.
"Xenophobia, racism's clone, masquerades today as a patriotic response to the presence of immigrants and refugees who are in our midst," he said. "Moreover, people in our nation continue to be victimized because of their color, or their first language, or their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs like too many people did 50 years ago."
While Gregory will be constrained by the Catholic church's steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage, he is seen as being far more friendly to LGBT Catholics than many of his fellow bishops.
While serving as a young bishop in Chicago, Gregory was close to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Chicago archbishop and one of the most esteemed Catholic leaders in the country. Bernardin was famous for his pro-life vision, which he defined broadly. Abortion in his view was wrong, but so was capital punishment, militarism, and social injustice. A true pro-life commitment, Bernardin said, had to be carried like a "seamless garment."
Gregory has long been seen as a strong supporter of Pope Francis at a time when some conservative bishops have openly criticized what they see as a leftward drift in the Vatican.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Vatican has selected a new archbishop of Washington, D.C. Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta. He'll be the first African-American to lead the D.C. Archdiocese, which has become the center of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States. NPR's religion correspondent Tom Gjelten is in our studios. Tom, good morning.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is Gregory's background?
GJELTEN: He's been a bishop for a long time, Steve. He's been a bishop for, like, 36 years - 35, 36 years - very well-known. He was, at one point, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which put him in a leadership position. So he's well-regarded here in the States. As you say, he is an African-American. He's actually, at this moment, the only living African-American archbishop in the country.
GJELTEN: That's an important consideration, considering that Washington, D.C., has a very large black population.
INSKEEP: And also considering the more diverse nature of the global Catholic Church, I would think.
GJELTEN: Exactly. And, you know, the Washington, D.C., archdiocese is very important. It's obviously the nation's capital. This is where the Catholic University of America, the flagship institution of the Catholic Church, is located - the basilica. So it's a very important position. By tradition, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., is made a cardinal, which will elevate him to - course, to the College of Cardinals, and he will be able to vote on the next pope.
INSKEEP: OK, but how does he fit with the peculiar problems of the job he's taking over?
GJELTEN: Very important question. I mean, there is no more troubled diocese - archdiocese in the country right now, probably, than Washington, D.C. His immediate predecessor, Donald Wuerl, had to resign this position because of allegations that he had not been tough enough on abusive priests. Wuerl's predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was actually defrocked because of allegations he had abused minors as a young bishop. So he is stepping into a real hotbed. And he is 71 years old, so he has to formally submit his resignation in just four years. He's going to have to move fast to restore trust.
INSKEEP: Oh, 75-year retirement deadline there. Well, there's also this divide in the church on other issues - a divide, essentially, over Pope Francis. Are you more liberal? Are you more conservative? Where does Gregory fit in there?
GJELTEN: Well, he's certainly considered one of the most progressive American bishops. Just to take one example of his preaching, you know, today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. And one year ago today, Archbishop Gregory gave a homily on that occasion in which he laid out his views of the significance of Martin Luther King. He said, for example, that 2018 is as problematic a year as 1968 was. Today, he said xenophobia masquerades as a patriotic response to the presence of immigrants and refugees in our midst. And then he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILTON GREGORY: People in our nation continue to be victimized because of their color or their first language or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs, like too many people did 50 years ago.
INSKEEP: Strong words.
GJELTEN: Strong words. Now, he didn't call for resistance or nonviolent protest the way Martin Luther King did, but still, he made clear where he stands on these big issues. And I think he is - it's fair to say he is a big supporter of Pope Francis at a time when the pope actually has a lot of detractors in the church.
INSKEEP: And of course, the pope is the man who named him to the job. Tom, thanks so much for coming by.
GJELTEN: You bet, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.