When a sex abuse crisis erupted again in the Catholic Church in the summer of 2018, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta wrote that he felt “profound anger, sadness and distress.”

Writing in his column in the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, he added, “My anger and disappointment, shared by Catholics and others, are only heightened by the reality that leaders who have engaged in or neglected to protect others from such damaging and deviant behavior have for many years failed to be held accountable – and have even risen in leadership positions. We must do better – for the sake of all victims and survivors of sexual abuse, and for the sake of everyone whom we serve in the name of Jesus Christ.”

That column was written after former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick had resigned from the College of Cardinals in July and had been ordered to live a life of prayer and penance after allegations accusing him of abusing minors and engaging in sexual misconduct with adults. In February after a Vatican investigation, the pope confirmed McCarrick’s removal from the priesthood.

In October 2018, Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation as the archbishop of Washington was accepted by Pope Francis, after Cardinal Wuerl had faced heavy criticism in a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report for how he had dealt with some abuse cases when he earlier served as the bishop of Pittsburgh.

On April 4 when Pope Francis named Archbishop Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington, the archbishop-designate said at a press conference that he would work to rebuild trust and foster healing in the archdiocese.

In an opening statement, Archbishop Gregory said, “This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges – throughout our entire Catholic Church certainly, but nowhere more so than in this local faith community. And as in any family, challenges can only be overcome by a firmly articulated resolve and commitment to be better. To know Christ better. To love Christ better. To serve Christ better.”

When the abuse crisis erupted in the Catholic Church nearly two decades ago, then-Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he led the conference in a nationwide effort to address the crisis, as the bishops implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002. 

“From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States,” then-Bishop Gregory said, as the bishops in 2002 adopted the charter, which includes a “zero tolerance policy” on priests who abuse children.

Under then-Bishop Gregory’s leadership of the USCCB, the bishops adopted a set of norms for handling accusations of abuse by priests and other church personnel, established a lay board to review how cases have been handled, and commissioned an extensive analysis of the factors involved in the crisis.

Archbishop Gregory was recently appointed to a USCCB task force examining further responses to the abuse crisis, as Catholic leaders have called for greater accountability and transparency among the bishops. 

In his Georgia Bulletin column addressing the current abuse crisis, Archbishop Gregory  noted, “We are weary of this cloud of shame that continues to shroud Church leadership and compromise our mission. I am personally disheartened because in 2002 I stood before the body of bishops and the people of God as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and made assurances in my own name and that of the Church in the United States that this crisis of faith and leadership was over and would not be repeated. I sincerely believed that the unprecedented steps we took at that time would help to heal this wound in the Body of Christ. And so they have, though obviously not completely or even sufficiently.”

Archbishop Gregory recommended that the bishops “engage the laity in reviewing and recommending courses of action that will assure the faithful that we are serious in curing this blight from our Church and from episcopal governance once and for all,” and noting how the bishops established a national lay review board in 2002, he added, “oversight by laity may well provide the only credible assurance that real and decisive actions are being taken.”

The archbishop expressed gratitude for Catholics’ “witness of faith and hope, even in difficult times,” and he wrote, “I pray that this moment, and these days, weeks, and months ahead, will be an opportunity for light to break through the darkness, and for darkness to be exposed to the light. I pray that all victims and survivors of sexual abuse will come forward and receive the help, support, and healing they need. And I pray that our Church and our leadership will be renewed and transformed by the light of Christ and have the courage to take the necessary next steps.”

Officials who witnessed then-Bishop Gregory’s leadership during the Church’s abuse crisis in 2002 praised his efforts and reflected on what his appointment will mean for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Kathleen McChesney, a longtime FBI special agent and administrator, was chosen in 2002 to become the first executive director of the USCCB’s Office of Child Protection.

In comments emailed to the Catholic Standard, McChesney said then-Bishop Gregory “was extremely well-suited to lead the USCCB, particularly at the time when survivors were finding their voice and the media was paying particular attention to the devastating problems of clergy abuse. Archbishop Gregory is a listener and was not afraid to engage with survivors and sincerely apologize to them on behalf of the Church for what they had experienced.”

McChesney also noted that as a leader, Archbishop Gregory “was able to bring together bishops of differing opinions and perspectives on the appropriate response of the Church to the issues surrounding clerical abuse and the passage and implementation of the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.’  He was exactly the leader needed in those moments.” 

While she led the Office of Child Protection for the USCCB, McChesney developed and administered a national compliance mechanism to ensure that Catholic dioceses complied with civil laws and internal policies relating to preventing, reporting and responding to the sexual abuse of minors, and she coordinated a research study into the nature and scope of the problem in the Church, and later wrote a book on the abuse crisis in the Church. 

McChesney expects that Archbishop Gregory’s “leadership experience and skills will well serve the Archdiocese of Washington and enhance its support of survivors,” and she believes that he “will bring added transparency to the history of the archdiocese as well as of its future efforts to protect young people and vulnerable adults.” She added, “He is also a hopeful man and will surely do all that he can to prevent abuses in the future.” 

Father Ken Doyle – the former director of media relations for the U.S. bishops who now writes a weekly question-and-answer column for the Catholic press – said in an email that, “Archbishop Gregory's assignment to Washington gives me renewed hope for the Church. I was present at Dallas in 2002 and recall his courageous leadership as president then of the U.S. Bishops' Conference. In a widely-reported talk, he admitted that bishops in the past had ‘worried more about the possibility of scandal than bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse,’ and he was determined that they were not going to leave Dallas without adopting policies of zero tolerance, transparency and the reporting of transgressors to civil authorities.”

John Carr, now the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, served as the secretary for social development and world peace at the bishops’ conference when the Dallas charter was adopted.

The abuse crisis, and the bishops’ actions then, impacted him as a staff member and as the parent of two teen-age sons, he said, adding, “It was personal.”

Carr said he witnessed how then-Bishop Gregory, in the eye of that storm, “consistently stood up for victims and their families.”

The charter and its elements, including the proposed “zero tolerance” policy on clergy abuse, had to be worked through, Carr said, adding that Washington’s future archbishop “was persistent, consistent and principled in making it happen, and he was courageous.”

Praising the appointment of Archbishop Gregory to Washington, Carr said, “He is smart, he is pastoral, and he is principled, and we need that at this time.” And he believes that Archbishop Gregory becoming the first African American to serve as the archbishop of Washington “reminds us of the vitality and contributions of African American Catholics here and beyond.”

Carr, who this past year shared his own story of being abused in the seminary, said Archbishop Gregory can help heal and renew the Church in Washington.

“Because he’s been through this, I think he’s deeply committed to survivors, he’s deeply committed to telling the truth, and deeply committed to being accountable,” Carr said. “All that comes before healing.”