Archbishop Wilton Gregory appointment: Apparently no one else wanted the D.C. job?

When I used to work across town at the Washington Times, I always used to envy the ability of our crosstown rival, the Washington Post, to run articles by not just one, but two, maybe even three reporters.

Multiple bylines are possible only for very large papers. The rest of us only had ourselves to rely on.

Thus I was interested in the triple-bylined Post’s take on Washington’s newest Catholic archbishop, Wilton Gregory, who will move from the Atlanta archdiocese to Washington when he’s installed on May 21.

I am guessing they had to put three reporters on the story because they had to come up with some decent reporting on Gregory’s appointment quickly. When the dust settled, it was pretty clear that the reporting team at the Post was less than impressed with Gregory, who will be the city’s first black archbishop and probably a cardinal in coming years. This see typically brings a red hat with it.

So here’s the piece, with a long anecdote leading into it:

When the first Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted in the early 2000s, Wilton Gregory led hundreds of defensive and divided bishops in passing the most aggressive action on abuse in U.S. church history.

But Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke remembers something else about Gregory, who was selected this month by Pope Francis to head the prestigious D.C. archdiocese.

As one of the laypeople Gregory appointed to serve on an advisory board to the bishops, Burke was struck by an inquiry he made to her one night when they found themselves alone after a meeting. He wanted to know how she’d been able to visit Vatican officials for her research on abuse.

She’d Googled “Vatican,” she told him, selected several offices she thought were related to the abuse issue, then faxed letters asking to visit.

“His face was ashen. ‘You what?’ ” she recalls him saying. At 55, that was, she believed, Gregory’s first experience with lay­people who went outside the chain of command.

His shock at her ability to get around protocol startled her, she said, and told her something important — that it was nearly impossible for Gregory to see things from an outside-the-church perspective. “His whole life has been devoted to this institution that’s a bureaucracy — to the point where he doesn’t know how infiltrated he is in that fabric.”

What follows is a profile on a company man who’s had to do the dirty work -- at times –- in cleaning things up after sex abuse allegations have leveled a diocese. And that while some of his moves have been unusual, never has he challenged, much less changed, the church bureaucracy that formed him.

The best two paragraphs are these:

Gregory is the Joe Biden of the U.S. church — someone who’s been around forever and is broadly popular, especially among more left-leaning Catholics. He is extremely experienced, a priest who became one of the youngest-ever U.S. bishops at age 36, just one year after church law allows it.

Unlike his predecessor in D.C., he is an extrovert and a big personality. And if tradition holds, as the new leader of the Washington Archdiocese he will become the nation’s first African American cardinal, eligible to vote for pope.

We’ll see after a year or so if the Biden comparison is fair. Gregory’s appointment, by the way, was announced on April 4, the 51st anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly someone wanted to telegraph the Catholic Church’s desire to be relevant to black Americans.

Most of the bases of Catholic opinion were covered in the piece, although I thought it a bit unfair, at the end, to allow a Catholic University professor to typify conservative Catholic bloggers as only wanting someone “authoritarian and dogmatic” in the spot.

What those bloggers seem to really want, from my read, is someone who is willing to publicly defend traditional Catholic tenets that were observed by almost everyone until the late 20th century.

Rocco Palmo, blogger for the richly sourced Whispers in the Loggia blog, observed that the Washington position was a position no church official wanted, at this moment in time:

Between the high local anger and intense wider focus on the DC church over the scandals – and even without that, the challenge of dealing with the nation's searing political polarization in the exacerbated context of the capital – it bears repeating that this is a job nobody wanted (and anyone who might've tried angling for it would, in essence, be immediately disqualified). …

What's more, however, as one leading op told Whispers as the process wended on, unlike any prior US opening of this magnitude, the stakes here were such that "Every man being mentioned is looking at every decision he's ever made," with many ruling themselves out from the glaring spotlight. That mindset was echoed by another top source, who noted that while a prelate who tried to decline a major appointment like this would normally be prodded to accept, in this case, "if somebody doesn't, no questions would be asked."

I wonder how much Gregory had to be talked into it as well.

Looking around for other sources for the inside story of why the archbishop of Atlanta was appointed to Washington, I chanced upon the Catholic News Agency’s take on it all. CNA has done some outstanding reporting in the past year on the politicking in Rome following the resignation of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Although it’s an analysis instead of a news story, it does chronicle why the nomination to the Washington spot took so long.

One of the most talked-about potential successors for Wuerl was Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark. An outspoken advocate for migrant and refugee rights, both in New Jersey and previously in Indiana, Tobin is known to be comfortable addressing hot-button issues…

While many speculated that Tobin would be a natural fit in an increasingly polarized Washington, sources say that objections were raised - including by several Congregation members - about how such a move would be perceived in the fallout of the scandals that rocked the Church in the United States last year.

The disgrace of Wuerl’s immediate predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, has made the archdioceses he once led - Washington and Newark - the epicenters of the recent abuse crisis in America.

While the Archdiocese of Newark continues to grapple with its own legacy of scandal from the McCarrick era, some at the Congregation expressed concern that moving Tobin to Washington would be poorly received by local Catholics hoping for a bishop wholly unconnected to the McCarrick scandal.

According to multiple sources in Rome, one of the strongest voices in favor of a “clean break” replacement in Washington was Wuerl himself.

Gregory was one of the few available prelates who had a McCarrick-free record and could be trusted to run a tight ship in Washington while not alienating the politicians. Both his and Wuerl’s appointments have shown a Vatican preference, under the Benedict and Francis pontificates, for appointing centrists better known for compromises.

CNA broke the story of Gregory’s appointment by the way. Strangely silent — beyond the obligatory article or two — has been the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gregory’s base since 2005.

CruxNow ran a piece or two, its latest one on what Gregory’s appointment means for race relations. I’d like to think that instead of the Biden of the church, Gregory might seize an opportunity to be its Barack Obama, forging new alliances and injecting some flair and class into the position.

He’s 71, so whatever he means to do, he’ll have to start quickly. I remember covering Wuerl during his first year in office and there’s a lot of key signals the new arrival will send soon — such as who he chooses to man his press office, what is said, or unsaid, during his first meetings with priests and what kinds of issues he’ll work on first.

Wuerl was never into the local politics. I have a feeling Gregory will be, and that his presence in town will provide a lot of grist for political and religion reporters alike.

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