After being designated by Pope Francis to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a news conference Thursday at the Washington Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Md. AP PHOTO / JOSE LUIS MAGANA
Photo: Jose Luis Magana
Photo: Jose Luis Magana

Atlantans sad yet proud as Gregory leaves to rebuild D.C. archdiocese

Don’t expect the new Washington archbishop to spend much time in the archdiocesan offices during his first few weeks on the job.

In fact, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory made it clear that he would be out getting to know — and listen — to people in the local church.

“I want to come to know you, to hear your stories, to listen to the emotions, experiences and expectations that have shaped your precious Catholic faith for better or for worse,” Gregory, 71, said Thursday during his first news conference since being tapped by the Vatican to take the helm of the troubled archdiocese. “I want to offer you hope. I will rebuild your trust.”

Gregory, who had led the Archdiocese of Atlanta since 2005, promised transparency and to reclaim the “future for our families, for those who will follow us.”

At his side was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, who is Gregory’s immediate predecessor. Wuerl resigned last year amid criticism of his handling of sex abuse scandals.

Wuerl said with Gregory’s appointment, the archdiocese was opening a new chapter. “We can all — with great confidence and enthusiasm — welcome our new shepherd.”

Gregory’s installation will be held on May 21. His successor in Atlanta has not been announced.

Susan B. Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, describes Gregory as moderate, “but because he’s moderate, he’s able to speak prophetically on difficult issues like racial injustice and do it in a way that people hear.”

And that’s part of what Washington needs.

“Washington needs healing,” she said. “It’s a local church that is incredibly wounded from the double legacy of Cardinal Wuerl and Theodore E. McCarrick.”

McCarrick was the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, who was defrocked after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused minors and seminarians over decades.

Last August, Gregory addressed the scandal in a letter to parishioners, saying he and other Catholics were “stunned and justifiably angry at shameful, unrelenting recent revelations of bishops accused of abuse or mishandling allegations of abuse — behavior that offends and scandalizes the people of God entrusted to our care. Specifically, we are enraged by the actions of Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former cardinal.”

Gregory was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 when it implemented procedures for addressing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse.

For some, it didn’t go far enough.

“Archbishop Gregory has a real chance to take a leading role in this crisis,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). By working with those investigating abuse and urging victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to come forward, Gregory can help bring much-needed transparency, he said.

Congratulations poured in from bishops, leaders from other faith groups, as well as those who sit in the pews.

“We’re losing a great man,” said Monsignor Henry Gracz of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, who has known Gregory since 2005. “He was an associate of Chicago Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin, and I think he carries so much of the cardinal’s spirit of reconciliation. He carried that with him, certainly in Atlanta’s interfaith and Jewish communities. He has a healing spirit and, with that, a real sense of the Gospel as being inclusiveness for all people.”

Avion Anderson, a member of St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Acworth, is a cradle Catholic and is saddened to see Gregory go.

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“He’s a great leader, but I understand why this is happening. I think the Washington archdiocese needs a strong leader, and I wish him the best of luck.”

For Joe Vella, a longtime parishioner at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, the news was also bittersweet.

“It is sad for Atlanta because for 11 or 12 years now, we’ve had the most dynamic, most dedicated, most spiritually motivating and most caring leader for our Catholic community, and for the entire community.”

At the same time, though, the Decatur resident acknowledged his fellow Catholics in the Washington Archdiocese need Gregory.

Gregory has a reputation for getting things done, but his tenure in Atlanta has had its bumpy moments.

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He drew criticism from more conservative elements of the church when he invited noted theologian the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America, a Catholic publication, to speak at two metro churches on welcoming the LGBTQ community.

A few years ago, Gregory was widely criticized and later apologized over plans to move into a $2.2 million Buckhead home. The home was later sold.

That meant a lot to Anderson.

“I liked his response after he heard the outcry,” she said. “He sold the property and I really appreciated that.”

Many black Catholics are overjoyed at the selection of Gregory, which was announced on the 51st anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory will become Washington’s first black archbishop and as was with his predecessors, likely will be elevated to cardinal.

“This is a powerful accomplishment and something I am personally proud of as a black Catholic,” said Patrice Barton Smith, a member of both Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary. “This is certainly a credit to all Archbishop Gregory has done and will continue to do. I hope and pray that he will be elevated to cardinal one day soon.”

She said the Catholic Church has come a long way in diversity, but “there are many miles to go. Archbishop Gregory’s appointment hopefully will be the first of more to come in demonstrating diversity and inclusion in the hierarchy of the church.”

Father Urey Patrick Mark, the Catholic chaplain for the Atlanta University Center and Georgia State University, said the move by Pope Francis “sends a beautiful message” to black Catholics.

“He was appointed archbishop here in 2005 in Atlanta, which is a very metropolitan city that is known for the presence of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement,” he said. “That was a big statement.”

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He praised Gregory for his calm and loving manner and his integrity.

“He’s able to congratulate you when you need to be congratulated and able to give you correction in a way that gives you dignity,” said Mark, a native of Liberia. “He represents pride in the black community. The church is beyond black and white. There’s no seat at the table too important for any particular race.”

Brian O’Shea contributed to this article.

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