By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – In his opening words to an archdiocese reeling from scandal and accusations of sexual abuse cover-up, the newly appointed leader to Catholics in the nation’s capital, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, pledged to always tell the truth.
“The only way I can serve this archdiocese is by telling you the truth,” he said at a press conference at the archdiocesan headquarters on Thursday.
The long-anticipated news of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment to Washington was made public by the Vatican Thursday and comes seven months after Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis last October.
Cardinal Wuerl, who introduced Archbishop Gregory, praised his pastoral abilities and said the archdiocese can look forward to the future with “great confidence” and enthusiasm” under Archbishop Gregory’s leadership.
The 71-year-old, who is currently serving as Archbishop of Atlanta, said that he was aware that at this moment the entire Catholic Church is “fraught with challenges,” but said that “nowhere more so than in his local community.”
“I would be naive not to acknowledge the unique task that awaits us,” he said, but pledged to offer hope and a rebuilding of trust.
“I cannot undo the past but I sincerely believe that together we will not merely address the moments where we’ve fallen short or failed outright, but we will model for all the life and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and we will reclaim the future,” he told reporters and diocesan staff on hand for the occasion.
In vowing to turn a new page, he said he wanted to neither forget the past not be constrained by it.
As the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) who guided the U.S. Church through its response to the clerical abuse crisis after the 2002 Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” revelations and helped pioneer new child protection protocols, he said “technical and structural responses” are crucial, but could not ignore the “spiritual dimensions” at the root of the crisis.
The archbishop said, “so much of what we are facing now was a misuse of power, an abuse of power, clerical power,” which he said must confronted.
When asked about area Catholics who are withholding financial gifts to the archdiocese and their local parishes, Archbishop Gregory said that the Church must do a better job of being transparent about how money is being spent related to abuse cases and where it is coming from.
He pledged to always respect donor intention, but added “unfortunately, we don’t provide enough vehicles for our laity to have a voice in the Church except through their wallet.”
When asked when whether he would be willing to confront the failings of past leaders of the diocese, he promised transparency, which both includes admitting what he knows and what does not know.
In speaking directly about Cardinal Wuerl, he said that the cardinal had admitted that he’s made mistakes in the past, which is a sign of integrity. He added that clericalism, however, is evident in the “circling of wagons” by bishops and cardinals to protect one another.
As the leader of the nation’s capital, Archbishop Gregory said that his role was to be pastoral, not political.
“I was not elected to Congress,” he insisted.
“I intend to speak and to promote the Church’s moral and doctrinal teaching – that comes with the job,” he said. “But I think that my involvement with the political engines that run here has to be reflected through that prism. I’m here as a pastor.”
The archbishop-elect praised the local diversity of races, languages, and backgrounds in Washington and the five counties that make up the archdiocese, saying that he seeks to “be a pastor to this entire family.”
“The archdiocese of Washington is home to the poor and the powerful, neither of which really realizes they are both,” he said.
Looking ahead, Archbishop Gregory warned the archdiocesan staff that in the immediate future not to expect him in the office, but rather, immersing himself in local parish life, seeking an “encounter” with priests and the people alike.
“We’ve certainly given our faithful a lot of reasons to leave the Church,” he said on Thursday. “I want to give them a few reasons to stay.”