From left, Peter K. Markell, Archbishop Wilton Gregory and the Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., at the Boston College commencement in 2018.
Washington CNN  — 

Pope Francis has tapped Archbishop Wilton Gregory to lead the embattled Archdiocese of Washington, giving the nation’s capital its first African-American archbishop and a veteran leader who guided the Catholic Church through its clergy sexual abuse crisis in the early 2000s.

Gregory, 71, will replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned in October 2018 amid pressure from Washington Catholics angry over his role in the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Since then, Wuerl has remained as the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, akin to an interim manager.

“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,” said Gregory. “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 archbishop of Washington is traditionally elevated by the Pope to the college of cardinals, meaning that Gregory eventually could be the highest-ranking African-American ever to serve in the Catholic Church in the United States.

Currently the only African-American archbishop in the United States, Gregory has led the Archdiocese of Atlanta since 2005. In 2001, he was elected the first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a tenure that overlapped with the outbreak of a damning clergy abuse crisis that began in Boston and soon exploded across the country.

Catholics who worked at the bishops’ conference describe Gregory as a calm but effective force who insisted the bishops institute new protocols to prevent the abuse of children, including a “zero tolerance” policy for any clergy with a credible accusation against them.

In Washington, Gregory will have a similarly difficult task, as both his predecessors have seen their legacies stained by another wave of scandals that has consumed the Catholic Church from within.

Wuerl has acknowledged “past errors in judgment” spotlighted in a report issued by a Pennsylvania grand jury last August. He has also faced criticism for misleading statements about what he knew of the misconduct of his predecessor, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by Pope Francis in February.

McCarrick has been accused of sexually abusing boys and misconduct with seminarians. He has denied the allegations about sexually assaulting an altar boy in the 1970s and not commented on the seminarian accusations. He now lives secluded in a Kansas friary.

Wuerl twice denied hearing any accusations about sexual misconduct by McCarrick, statements that he later amended after an abuse survivor said he had seen a letter Wuerl sent to a former Vatican ambassador detailing the survivor’s complaints about McCarrick.

A news conference on Thursday, Gregory said he knew that he must work to rebuild trust among Catholics in the archdiocese, where some Catholics have been withholding charitable donations in protest.

“We have certainly given our faithful lots of reasons to leave the church,” he said. “I want top provide a few reasons to stay.”

A ‘step forward’

“This a huge step forward for the wounded church of Washington,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “With the McCarrick revelations and the Wuerl resignation, Washington has become ground zero in the crisis of episcopal leadership on sex abuse.”

“No one has done enough on clerical sexual abuse, but Archbishop Gregory showed determination and commitment in leading the effort to adopt the Dallas Charter, zero tolerance and lay review boards in 2002,” Carr said.

Gregory’s tenure in Atlanta has been mostly free from controversy, though he caused a stir by barring guns from Catholic churches after Georgia passed its “Guns Everywhere” law in 2014. The archbishop also angered some conservative Catholics by inviting the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest, to to speak in Atlanta about outreach to L.G.B.T. Catholics

In 2014, Gregory agreed to vacate a newly purchased $2.2 million mansion in Atlanta after local Catholics complained.

“I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services,” the archbishop said in his apology.

For the most part, though, Gregory was known as a steady, unflashy leader. In Washington, he will have a smaller flock (Atlanta has 1.2 million Catholics; DC about 650,000) but a much larger bully pulpit. While Gregory has largely shied from political battles, leading one of the nation’s most prominent archdioceses during a time of racial turmoil will almost certainly thrust the native Chicagoan into heated national debates.

Asked about his political priorities on Thursday, Gregory said he was coming to Washington as a pastor, not a politician.

“I was not elected to Congress,” he quipped. “I intend to speak and to promote the church’s moral and doctrinal teachings. That comes with the job … But I’m not going to be at any negotiating tables. My place is in the pews with my people.”

‘Race is not a disqualifier anymore’

The Rev. Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washington’s oldest black parish, which was founded by African-Americans who had been forced to worship in a church basement, called Gregory’s appointment an important moment for the city and Catholics nationwide.

As rumors swirled in the days before the announcement, Smith said he had heard some Catholics say that race shouldn’t matter in the selection of the city’s new archbishop.

“Race shouldn’t matter,” Smith said. “But in our country, to our detriment, race has always mattered. African-Americans had been told that we could not be priests, bishops or archbishops. Race was a disqualifier for far too long. Well, race is not a disqualifier anymore. At least, not in Washington.”

“I’m glad the Pope is willing to do something that no Pope ever before has been willing to do.”