Person of the Week: Bishop Wilton Gregory

  • Share
  • Read Later

Bishop Gregory presiding over a service at St. Patrick's Basilica in Montreal

The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has wreaked spiritual havoc on the faithful — and their leaders. Bishop Wilton Gregory hopes to help repair that damage. Thursday, as America's Catholic cardinals left Rome, relief hung thick in the air: at last, activity would replace passivity. The unspeakable had been spoken, and the Pope himself had called the abuse "a crime." Now, when the press asks questions about the heinous crimes of priests, at least the country's cardinals and bishops will be able to acknowledge the problem, and remind parishioners that a solution is being worked out.

But how — and when?

In two months, America's Catholic bishops will gather in Dallas for their annual meeting. They will discuss the sex abuse scandal, and struggle to answer the most critical question of all: How can they keep this from happening again? The man who will lead the search for those answers is Bishop Wilton Gregory. As president of the 190-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the 54-year-old Gregory will play a critical role in determining the course of action eventually taken against clergy found guilty of sexual abuse. And because Gregory has taken the lead in the extraordinary conference of cardinals in Rome of the past few days, he is our Person of the Week.

As the issue stands now, the Vatican supports a sort of modified zero-tolerance policy for America's 47,000 priests: call it "a couple of strikes and you're out." Priests who are found to be "notorious and guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors" will automatically be defrocked by the local bishop. But the fate of priests who "are not notorious" (i.e. first offenders) will be left up to a local diocese. The Vatican's relatively conciliatory approach disappointed some American Catholics who feel betrayed by the Church, and it has left some American Catholic clergy feeling that more should be done.

Reconciling the expectations of an angry Catholic community, the disparate feelings of various clergy members and the Pope's definitive guidelines falls into the hands of Bishop Gregory. Not that he is without his own misgivings about a ruling that would permit known offenders to return to work. "We bishops clearly need to discuss among ourselves and with our people the question of any ministerial posts for a priest — even with limited abusive history in the past — who has received treatment and is receiving ongoing care and monitoring," Gregory told reporters this week.

As the steward of America's bishops, Gregory will be forced to confront issues never before raised in the Church. He's accustomed to a pioneering role; Gregory is the first African American ever elected to lead the conference of bishops, and previously served as the group's vice president. Gregory was ordained as a priest in 1973, in Chicago's archdiocese, at the age of 25.

This Church's current predicament plays to his strengths. Gregory is media-savvy, appearing on radio and television news programs to discuss the Catholic Church and its role in modern America. He apologized early and often to the adults and children who have been assaulted by pedophile priests, breaking the silence some cardinals fought so long to maintain.

A calm, quiet man with a reputation for listening, Gregory desperately wants to inspire even dismayed U.S. Catholics to keep the faith, and knows that rebuilding a flock requires a rebuilding of trust. He knows this because he has dealt with this problem before: in his own diocese of Belleville, Illinois, he cracked down on priests found guilty of sex abuse, eventually ousting 12 of them in the 1990s. That success has made him enormously popular with church leaders and laity alike.

Throughout the sex abuse crisis, he has been adamant about one thing: not maintaining tradition, not protecting reputations, but safeguarding the children. Gregory was among the first to call abuse a crime — breaking from earlier Church teachings that insisted it was moral weakness that could be curbed, even stopped, through vigorous prayer and religious counseling.

Gregory considers the sex abuse scandal a call to begin again, to renew the Church's commitment to young people, and to reignite the Bishops' devotion. Only by achieving these things, he believes, can the Church reclaim its true faith.