As USCCB President, He Was Tested Under Fire
Published: December 4, 2008
New NCCB president Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza (left) and vice president Bishop Wilton D. Gregory greet one another following their election at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Washington Nov. 17, 1998. Bishop Fiorenza, of the Galveston-Houston Diocese, was the first head of the bishops’ conference to come from the South. Bishop Gregory, then of Belleville, Ill., was the first black bishop to take the vice-president post. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)
ATLANTA—In November 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had little on the horizon.
In two months’ time, a whirlwind of sexual abuse allegations of children by priests and the inaction of some bishops to stop it shook the confidence of the laity.
In the spotlight would be then Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the first black president of the bishops’ conference, which represents the 194 U. S. dioceses and archdioceses. It would be the event that would eclipse anything else that happened during his three-year tenure as president.
He apologized to victims. He shepherded the passage of the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by the American bishops in 2002 and briefed the top Vatican officials on trips to Rome about the urgency of the crisis. With a delegation from the U.S. bishops, he met with Pope John Paul II.
“He showed remarkable strength and equanimity in a difficult role,” said Bishop William S. Skylstad of the Spokane Diocese in Washington. Bishop Skylstad served as vice president during the abuse crisis and later became USCCB president.
Time magazine named Bishop Gregory its Person of the Week in April 2002 as the crisis swirled.
The crisis continues to reverberate throughout the church. Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have paid out more than $1.5 billion to alleged abuse victims. Pope Benedict XVI privately met with several abuse victims during his April visit to the United States.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives the homily during the bishops’ Mass of remembrance Sept. 11, 2002, in Washington. He told those gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington that the way to defeat violence is to know Christ. (CNS photo by Martin Lueders)
Fellow bishops elected Archbishop Gregory, who then headed the rural diocese of Belleville, Ill., president in the fall of 2001. He received nearly 75 percent of votes from his peers to become president. He had already served the previous three years as vice president under then Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.
Archbishop Gregory has long been a leader in the national church. He was active during previous years with several committees, including liturgy, which is his specialty, and the Jubilee Year 2000. Currently, he is the chairman-elect of the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Now retired, Archbishop Fiorenza said Archbishop Gregory possesses a “super abundance of common sense.”
During their work together, Archbishop Fiorenza said he consulted with his colleague numerous times. He was a great confidante to have on the dais during the bishops’ conferences as they looked at hundreds of bishops and ran meetings, he said.
They became close friends during the three years they spent together leading the conference and traveling to Rome and back. Archbishop Fiorenza is to give the homily at the Jubilee Mass for Archbishop Gregory at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
When Archbishop Gregory took over in January 2002, an item on the horizon was consideration of Pope John Paul’s encyclical “Novo Millennio Ineunte” (At the Beginning of the New Millennium). Archbishop Fiorenza said there were some suggestions in the papal letter to bishops in the encyclical to review.
Priests of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., bless Bishop Wilton D. Gregory May 28, 2002 as he prepares for the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas. Bishop Gregory, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led the June 13-15 meeting at which they approved a national plan to deal with clergy sexual abuse. (CNS photo by Liz Quirin, The Messenger)
In early 2002, The Boston Globe first reported on abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. The issue soon became a nationwide crisis for the church.
As the revelations of the abuse worsened in the spring, high-ranking church leaders flew to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II and other Vatican leaders. It was an opportunity to brief them about the crisis.
Bishop Skylstad accompanied Archbishop Gregory to these vital meetings.
The archbishop was a “very able spokesman” to inform the global church about the crisis, Bishop Skylstad said.
“He’s very unflappable. That’s a very good quality,” he said.
Archbishop Fiorenza was worried about his friend. He knew the crisis put him under tremendous strain.
“God love him, he stayed calm and cool,” said Archbishop Fiorenza.
In June, the conference met in Dallas following the unprecedented meeting in Rome. During the course of two days of debate under the media scrutiny, the bishops voted to implement a new national policy to prevent future abuse and to heal the past damage.
Bishop Skylstad said the archbishop has an openness to differing opinions and synthesizes the information.
Pope John Paul II meets with leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2004. From left are Msgr. William P. Fay, general secretary; Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president and bishop of Spokane, Wash.; and Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president and bishop of Belleville, Ill. (CNS photo courtesy L’Osservatore Romano)
“He is not bothered by different points of view,” he said.
Out of the crisis, the bishops created a national lay watchdog group to monitor the progress of audits and the dioceses’ implementation of child-safety requirements.
The requirements seek to stop abuse in church settings by training employees, volunteers, parents and children. Adults are screened before they come in contact with children. A code of conduct for appropriate behavior with children was implemented that covers clergy, church employees and volunteers.
Jesuit Bishop George Murry, of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, said handling the crisis showed the archbishop’s skills.
“A combination of courage, tact and determination” helped the archbishop lead the American bishops to correct the past mistakes and to enact the strongest program to protect children of any institution in the United States, said Bishop Murry.
Indeed, Archbishop Gregory was recognized for his handling of the sexual abuse crisis. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative awarded him its 2006 Cardinal Bernardin Award for his efforts to bring healing to the U.S. church during the crisis.
Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati presented the award. “I have always found Archbishop Gregory to be thoughtful, balanced, good humored, and intelligent,” said Archbishop Pilarczyk in written comments.
He called Archbishop Gregory “a real treasure” for the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Kenneth Velo, a priest of Chicago and seminary classmate of Archbishop Gregory who served as chancellor under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, said both he and Archbishop Gregory were mentored by Cardinal Bernardin.
The years of observing the cardinal helped them both grow as priests. Valuable throughout life, the mentoring was especially crucial during the leadership challenge faced by Archbishop Gregory, he said.
“I think both of us were privileged to be mentored by Cardinal Bernardin,” Msgr. Velo said. “Cardinal (John) Cody ordained us in 1973, but it was Cardinal Bernardin who really brought us further to the sacrament to which we were ordained, holy orders.”
“He was a person of much grace and forgiveness. There is no doubt in my mind all of us were influenced,” he said. “Wilton watched very closely and was influenced greatly by the way Cardinal Bernardin approached life, people, individuals. … I believe Wilton not only learned (while in Chicago) but as bishop of Belleville continued to learn from the way the cardinal handled life, pressure, issues, controversy.”
“And how proud Chicagoans were when he was elected president of the bishops’ conference through probably the most turbulent years the conference has seen,” Msgr. Velo said. “I am sure the late cardinal would have been very pleased that Wilton, one of his protégés, one he mentored, went on to become president of the bishops’ conference.”