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Why The Pope's Appointment Of Wilton Gregory As Archbishop Of D.C. Is Significant


Catholics here in Washington, D.C., are about to have a new leader. The Vatican announced today that Archbishop Wilton Gregory will take the post. He's currently in Atlanta, and he is the only living African-American archbishop. Washington's last two Catholic leaders left under a cloud. Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned under criticism that he mishandled abuse allegations, and his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked for sexual abuse of minors over decades.

Our next guest, John Carr, is the director of Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. He has worked with the new D.C. archbishop. Thank you for coming into the studio.

JOHN CARR: Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: This is an important post beyond Washington both in and outside the Catholic Church. And as we've mentioned, he's coming into an archdiocese that has had a lot of scandal recently. So what do you think Wilton Gregory's top priority should be?

CARR: Well, Washington is a wounded dioceses. And in some ways, we're ground zero for the latest round of the sexual abuse crisis. So I think the first thing he has to do is be a pastor. We're hurting, and he has to help heal some of these wounds. He has a remarkable record in this. I - when I worked with him at the conference, he was the leader in 2002 that faced up to this crisis - and so zero tolerance for priests who abuse, lay leaders involved in reviewing these matters. So in an era - in an area where very few people did much, he did more than most.

SHAPIRO: You're referring to the moment that he took over the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after the Boston scandal came to light. Tell us a little bit more about his approach to that crisis.

CARR: He simply wouldn't take no for an answer. He was offended. He became Catholic as a young man and felt this was a horrific abuse of power and trust. And so when others were saying, don't go so far; don't go so fast, he simply insisted that there was no place in the Church for people who abuse children, that clergy alone could not judge these cases. And so what came was the Dallas Charter, which has zero tolerance for abuse, lay people involved in making these judgments and frankly a lot of education and awareness building within the Church. The Church is a lot safer place for young people, but we're still not dealing effectively with the failed leadership which permitted this. And that's part of what he brings.

SHAPIRO: We've talked about the sexual abuse issue. Tell us more about the issue of race and how significant his appointment is to this archdiocese.

CARR: Well, as a young man, he came of age during the civil rights movement. So he has the experience of discrimination. He has the experience of leadership at a time of crisis for the Church. So I think we will have a humble leader. We will have a strong leader. We will have a leader which reaches out instead of hunkers down.

SHAPIRO: The archbishop of Washington is typically made a cardinal, which would make Gregory the first African-American to earn that title. Does it surprise you that it's taken the Church this long?

CARR: Absolutely. I mean, racism is the open wound in our society, and it's been a huge part of this Church. When Archbishop Wilton Gregory goes to southern Maryland to make a visit soon, he will go to parishes, and he will go to schools that were segregated in the 1950s. So yes, it makes a difference. And at a time when we have trouble addressing questions of race, at times when we're divided on questions of race, having a leader because of who he is, what he stands for and how he serves is a tremendous asset in a very difficult conversation.

SHAPIRO: John Carr is the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. Thank you very much.

CARR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.