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Wilton Gregory installed as new archbishop of Washington

Archbishop designated by Pope Francis to the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a news conference at Washington Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Md., Thursday, April 4, 2019. Archbishop-designate Gregory will succeed Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Rev. Wilton D. Gregory was installed Tuesday as the seventh archbishop of Washington following a pair of high-profile sexual abuse cases that ensnared his two predecessors.

The 71-year-old Gregory, previously the archbishop of Atlanta, becomes the first African American to lead the Washington archdiocese.

Gregory replaces Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned in October amid allegations that he covered up multiple abuse scandals while serving as a bishop in Pittsburgh.

Wuerl had replaced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by the pope after a Vatican-backed investigation concluded he sexually abused children and adults during his time as a priest in New York and a bishop in New Jersey. It was the first time a cardinal had been dismissed from the priesthood for abuse.

Despite his resignation, Wuerl remains in good standing in the church and served in a caretaker role while the search for his replacement was conducted. On Tuesday, he gave the opening remarks introducing Gregory.

“All of us here recognize his many gifts and welcome him as a faith-filled pastor,” Wuerl said. “It is clear that Pope Francis sends us a bishop attuned with the signs of the times and endowed with great pastoral ability.”

Gregory, in his remarks, directly addressed the recent scandals.

“We stand at a defining moment for this local faith community,” he said. “Our recent sorrows and shame do not define us. Rather they serve to chasten and strengthen us.”

Calling his installation “an indescribably humbling moment,” Gregory pledged to create an open and inclusive environment.

“I want to be a welcoming shepherd,” he said. “We begin a journey together on undeniably choppy seas.”

Gregory told those gathered that he would share in their joys and sorrows and added he would be a leader “who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed.” A murmur rippled through the crowd at that statement, and then the attendees at the mass broke into long and loud applause.

Gregory is credited for his leadership of the U.S. church during a moment of crisis. As president of the U.S. bishops conference, he persuaded church leaders to adopt toughened penalties for abusers in 2002.

In Atlanta, Gregory was embroiled briefly in a scandal of his own in 2014 after the archdiocese used $2.2 million in donations to buy and renovate a swank new home for the archbishop. The mansion was later sold, and Gregory apologized following an outcry from parishioners.

A native of Chicago, Gregory takes over a relatively small archdiocese that has always held outsized importance due to its location in the nation’s capital. Washington archbishops are traditionally elevated to cardinals; if that happens, Gregory would become the first African American cardinal.

David Clohessy, the former national director of Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests, said he remains skeptical, despite Gregory’s pledge of openness.

Clohessy, who currently leads the Missouri chapter of the group, said, “Even after the Church’s abuse policy was adopted in 2002, Bishop Gregory was found in contempt for refusing to turn over documents about a priest who had abused many, many boys and girls.”

He called Gregory personable, charming and a “terrific public speaker” who “gets along exceedingly well with journalists,” but added, “All of that says little to nothing about how he will actually deal with abuse cases. So it’s important that we look over substance and not style.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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