By JD Flynn
Archbishop Wilton Gregory told Washington Catholics Thursday that “the only way I can serve this local archdiocese is by telling you the truth.”
Gregory will be installed as Washington’s archbishop in May, likely bringing to an end the acute crisis the Archdiocese of Washington has faced in recent months, amid pervasive questions about the integrity, and especially the honesty, of its outgoing leader, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Wuerl came under fire after revelations emerged last June regarding the sexual misconduct of his own predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, and after his record as the former Bishop of Pittsburgh was scrutinized in the July report of a Pennsylvania grand jury examining clerical sexual abuse and institutional response.
The cardinal, it should be made clear, has not himself been accused of any act of sexual misconduct. But he has been criticized for seeming to insufficiently address problems or untenable situations in his dioceses, and the cardinal has faced relentless questions about what he knew and did, at various times in his dealings with McCarrick. This criticism became particularly acute after CNA reported that Wuerl had knowledge of allegations against McCarrick for more than a decade before they came to light, though he had seemed to deny them.
When Gregory was introduced to Washington Catholics April 4, he seemed acutely aware of those criticisms.
“I will always tell you the truth as I understand it” Gregory promised his new flock.
Gregory has now set the stake by which his tenure as Washington’s archbishop will be measured. By his own account, he will be the archbishop of transparency.
And questions will certainly be waiting for him.
Catholics in the U.S., among them the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, have been looking for answers on McCarrick since June, and once Gregory takes the reins from Wuerl, they will turn to him for those answers.
Gregory is likely to face questions about McCarrick’s influence on the Archdiocese of Washington, about his financial administration, his relationship with the Vatican, with priests, seminarians, and religious orders, and his relationship with Wuerl, his predecessor.
The nature of McCarrick’s apparent “prohibition” from living in a seminary, and the veracity of other admonishments and exhortations alleged by Archbishop Carlo Vigano has not yet been disclosed. The nature of the relationship between McCarrick and the Institute of the Incarnate Word, at whose seminary he lived for years, has not yet been clarified. The influence of McCarrick’s apparent generosity in Rome has not yet been unpacked, nor has the source of his financial largesse been explained. Gregory will, doubtlessly, be asked about these things.
There will also likely be questions about Wuerl, his relationship with McCarrick and with the apostolic nuncio, and about whether there were other issues in the Archdiocese of Washington that have not been addressed with transparency, and according to proper procedure.
When McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals, Gregory issued a powerful and candid statement.
“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,” Gregory wrote.
“I never knew or suspected the hidden side of a man whose admired public persona concealed that of a violator of foundational Christian morality and of young people who trusted him. Like any individual who discovers far too late that a friend has a history of moral misconduct, I now stand dumbfounded that I was so unaware and naïve. I know that many other bishops feel the same.”
“Our people are disappointed with bishops in general who seemingly cannot or will not act decisively to heal this festering wound. They are perplexed and sickened that the Holy See may well have dismissed multiple warning signs that should have halted Theodore McCarrick and others earlier in their careers,” he added.
“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.”
In file cabinets soon to be under his control, are likely some of the answers that Gregory, and other bishops, and many other Catholics have been hoping to find. Gregory has promised to tell the truth about what he knows. He has conceded that he might not always know the answers, but said that when he does, he will share them.
Making good on his word may not always prove easy for Washington’s new archbishop. But Archbishop Gregory likely knows that if he is going to restore trust among his priests, his people, and among Catholics hopeful about his leadership, the promise of honesty will be one he has to keep.