- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2019

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory acknowledged Thursday that he and the Roman Catholic Church have obstacles to overcome in regaining the trust of parishioners, hours after Pope Francis named him as spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Washington, which has become a focal point of the church’s ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal.

“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges throughout our entire Catholic Church, certainly, but nowhere more so than in this local faith community,” Archbishop Gregory said during a news conference at the Washington Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.

The 71-year-old archbishop was introduced by his predecessor, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who was forced to resign as archbishop of Washington in October over his role in dealing with predatory priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.

Cardinal Wuerl, who succeeded now-defrocked former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick in the Archdiocese of Washington, praised Francis’ choice of Archbishop Gregory.

“I join everyone who appreciates his pastoral abilities, his intellectual gifts and his leadership qualities,” Cardinal Wuerl said in his introduction of the next archbishop, who will be formally installed in May as the archdiocese’s seventh spiritual leader.

At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, a priest made no mention of the new archbishop Thursday during a lunchtime Mass. But a congregant who asked not to be identified expressed disappointment with the pope’s announcement.

“Not good,” he said of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment, noting that Francis’ pick seemed weak on social conservatism. “If you know church politics, not good.”

Church traditionalists have criticized Archbishop Gregory for endorsing Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” which calls for leniency in ministering to remarried Catholics, including the possibility of communion. The church teaches that a valid marriage is permanent and cannot be undone by a civil divorce, meaning someone in a second marriage is openly living in a sinful state.

The appointment of Archbishop Gregory, who has served the Archdiocese of Atlanta since 2005, had been rumored for weeks. In Atlanta, he banned guns from churches after lawmakers in Georgia loosened restrictions on where one could travel with a handgun.

As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, he endorsed the group’s zero-tolerance policy on clergy sex abuse in 2002 in response to the growing scandal.

Some conservative critics have noted the archbishop’s friendship with the Rev. James Martin, an outspoken Jesuit advocate for increasing tolerance of LGBT people in the church.

“A superb choice,” Father Martin wrote in a Facebook post, noting that Francis appointed Archbishop Gregory on the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “He is also keen to reach out to marginalized populations.”

Archbishop Gregory, who will be the first black leader of the Archdiocese of Washington, praised the cardinal he is succeeding.

“I’ve known Donald Wuerl for over 40 years,” the archbishop said. “He is a gentleman. He works very hard for the church. He’s acknowledged that he’s made mistakes. That’s a sign of the integrity of the man.”

Cardinal Wuerl resigned after a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer identified 301 priests who had been credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 people over the course of 70 years without being brought to justice.

The report accused church leaders of protecting abusive clergymen by transferring them to other parishes, downplaying their violations and paying off victims. Cardinal Wuerl said he tried to discipline and hold priests accountable without involving secular legal authorities.

His predecessor, Mr. McCarrick, had long been accused of inappropriate relations with seminarians before he arrived at the Archdiocese of Washington in 2011. He resigned from the College of Cardinals in June after reports of his transgressions, and he was defrocked and stripped of all ministry after a church trial in February.

The resignations and scandal have been cited for a downtick in membership and donations in the Archdiocese of Washington, whose congregation has 650,000 Catholics in the District and five Maryland counties.

At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Largo, a historically black congregation in Prince George’s County, the Rev. Robert Boxie III said the announcement of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment felt like an affirmation of the contribution of black Catholics in the region.

“We were very, very excited to get the news,” he said.

Father Boxie said that, unlike other parishes, St. Joseph’s has grown amid the scandal and not suffered at the collection plate.

“We know who our faith rests in,” he said. “It’s not in a priest, a bishop or an archbishop.”

He said the faithful who gathered for the Eucharist on Thursday prayed twice for Archbishop Gregory.

“There’s just a huge relief,” Father Boxie said. “Relief that we can now move forward as a people of faith.”

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