By SUZANNE HAUGH, Staff Writer | Published January 20, 2005
The nation looked to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, then the bishop of Belleville, Ill., and the first African-American president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as news began to stream out into the public concerning the sexual abuse of minors by priests and others working on behalf of the church.
“It was all unexpected,” said Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, OP, of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. Archbishop Gregory had to take action.
“He wasn’t a Monday morning quarterback. He had to do it on the day, and he handled it very, very well.”
Serving in his role as the president of the USCCB, Archbishop Gregory took action when a charge of child molestation by a priest rocked the Archdiocese of Boston in January 2002 and incited the onslaught of other reports of sexual abuse by those in the church. The crisis created an atmosphere of mistrust and hurt among Catholics and the general public of the Catholic hierarchy and brought to light for victims the abuse and hurt many had kept silent for years.
Few have worked as closely with Archbishop Gregory during this time of crisis as Kathleen McChesney, the national director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the USCCB.
“Archbishop Gregory is the kind of individual who really listens to what people have to say, whether it’s a person hurt by abuse, a member of the review board, a bishop, the laity or someone in business.”
From his rural diocese in southern Illinois, the archbishop steered efforts by the church to respond to the crisis by strengthening church policies to create safer environments for children and formalizing reporting standards in every diocese while also reaching out to victims of abuse.
“I had the opportunity to spend time with Archbishop Gregory in Belleville and St. Louis. He is a recognized individual, very pastoral. He likes to go one-on-one with people. He never hesitates to engage people he meets. He’s very open.”
McChesney called Archbishop Gregory a “great communicator” and commented on his placement in history at the time the crisis erupted.
“There are many bishops who have the same sorts of gifts he has. He was an excellent person at the right time. Many of the bishops believed he brought the right combination of pastoral skills and listening skills. He knew the church needed to move forward. He showed tremendous leadership.”
Archbishop Gregory was not afraid to publicly apologize to victims or to publicly acknowledge the failure of members of the church hierarchy to deal effectively with abuse in their dioceses.
Despite some resistance, Archbishop Gregory led the bishops at their meeting in Dallas in June 2002 to consensus in how to handle priests and other church employees or volunteers guilty of abuse, which was to create a binding policy that prohibits them from public ministry and ensures cooperation with civil authorities in cases of abuse.
The bishops also created a national lay watchdog panel to monitor progress through audits of each diocese’s effectiveness in putting into place and implementing the mandatory policies agreed upon by the bishops in their document, “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
These policies, under the name of safe environment programs, seek to prevent abuse from occurring in church settings by training employees, volunteers, parents and children. They include screening adults who come in contact with children and creating a code of conduct appropriate for priests, Religious, employees and volunteers who work on behalf of the church.
Sue Stubbs, director of the Atlanta Archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, also commended the archbishop’s management of the crisis.
“I appreciate his forthrightness about it all and his setting the tone of wanting to make things right,” she said.
He showed genuine empathy for the victims of abuse and a desire “to help people heal … that was his first concern.”
He did not back away from taking responsibility for what had happened, she added, acknowledging and accepting the blame. “He said, ‘This is what it is and what we’re going to do about it.’”
Archbishop Kelly also commended Archbishop Gregory, saying that he will be “a wonderful leader, a great shepherd here.”
“He’s shown his great gifts … his practical skills and wonderful mind.”