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The Bishop, The Scandal And His Plan

Gregory's '94 Experience Shapes Centrist Response
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer

When Wilton D. Gregory arrived here as bishop nearly a decade ago, this sprawling diocese of small towns and large cornfields was in the midst of a sex scandal that was truly American Gothic.

Thirty-three people, including three priests, said they had been abused by priests. The local newspaper reported sex parties in rectories, a church-sponsored youth camp run by an alleged pedophile, a male prostitute who stole checks from a priest-client, a "homosexual ring" operating out of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, a priest who impregnated a 16-year-old and then gave her a voodoo potion to induce an abortion.

In short, Boston now has nothing over Belleville then. The national scandal that Gregory faces today as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a blown-up version of what greeted him as a brand-new bishop in southern Illinois in 1994. Just one year into a three-year term, he is spearheading the effort to win Vatican approval for the bishops' new zero-tolerance policy toward clerical sexual abuse, and to ensure that it is carried out consistently across the country. The steps he took in Belleville -- an approach that was direct and unflinching but also narrowly tailored to the problem at hand -- may be an indication of where he is leading the American church now.

If it is, that could disappoint many Roman Catholics -- both progressives who view the scandal as an opportunity to empower the laity and renew consideration of married priests and the ordination of women, as well as conservatives who see the scandal as a clarion call to reemphasize church teachings on homosexuality, divorce, birth control and priestly celibacy.

So far, leaders of both wings have praised Gregory, 54, and viewed him as a potential ally.

Because he is a convert to Catholicism and the first African American to head the bishops' conference, someone who sported a big Afro in the 1960s and still wears kente cloth on his vestments, progressives see him as an outsider within the church's leadership. Because he emphasizes his devotion to the "authentic teachings" of the church, conservatives equally expect he will lean their way.

By temperament, training and deliberate political calculation, Gregory is a man of the center. He has dealt with child sexual abuse, both in his own diocese and nationally, by focusing on the immediate, practical matter of removing problem priests and by putting off divisive questions about the ultimate causes and consequences of the crisis.

Whether that approach will be as successful across the country as it has been in Belleville -- whether the center, led by Gregory, can bring the church through its present agony without yielding to either the left or the right -- is a crucial question before American Catholics.

By the time Gregory left Chicago, where he had been an auxiliary bishop, to head the Belleville diocese, the daily Belleville News-Democrat had been reporting aggressively on priestly sexual misconduct for two years, and the diocese of 110,000 Catholics was in an uproar. But his mentor in Chicago, the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, was reassuring. "The only thing he said to me was: 'Wilton, all Belleville needs is a good bishop,' " Gregory recalled.

The belief that there was nothing fundamentally wrong, nothing that a dose of forthright leadership could not fix, guided Gregory's subsequent actions, just as it guides his approach to the national church today.

Board Told to 'Get It Right'

Even before his formal installation in Belleville in February 1994, he promised that addressing sexual misconduct would be his top priority. He began working with a review board of lay Catholics to examine all the accusations, and he appointed a separate committee to look into Camp Ondessonk, the youth camp whose priest-director allegedly had a fondness for skinny-dipping with kids.

"The direction the board received from Bishop Gregory was, he wanted us to be independent, he wanted us to investigate these matters to the fullest, and he wanted us to get it right -- and by get it right, I mean he was concerned about children, victims and then priests, in that order," said Michael Nester, a Belleville lawyer who has served on the review board since its inception. "It came across clearly to me that protecting the children was of utmost importance."

Within a relatively short time, 14 priests and one deacon -- more than 10 percent of the diocese's total -- had been removed from their parishes. Only one was later exonerated and returned to ministry by Gregory, though three are still asserting their innocence and seeking reinstatement in appeals to Rome.

A common misconception, both in Belleville and among American bishops, is that Gregory personally ordered all 15 men out of their jobs. In fact, his predecessor, James P. Keleher, now archbishop of Kansas City, had set up the review board and removed five priests. An interim administrator had removed three more.

But Gregory upheld those removals and took the heat. He was accessible to the press and met with victims' families. Day after day, the News-Democrat pitted his comments against those of David Clohessy, who lives just across the Mississippi River in St. Louis and is executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide support group. So Gregory called Clohessy and met with him, too.

"To this day, he's the only bishop in the country who's ever picked up the phone and called me," Clohessy said.

Gregory's actions left many people dissatisfied. Clohessy and local victims believe Gregory could have done more and that the diocese should have been more generous and consistent in paying for counseling. On the other hand, many Belleville Catholics are angry that priests were removed from their ministries without clear proof of misconduct; some of the most lurid accusations, such as the alleged sex parties, were never proven.

But even though the healing is incomplete, the aura of crisis has passed. Gregory has brought financial transparency to Belleville, the first diocese in the country to disclose exactly how much money it has spent over the years on legal fees, counseling and settlements in abuse cases: $3,156,414 from 1993 through 2001.

Setting the Focus in Dallas

Nationally, the bishops' conference is now pursuing much the same strategy -- setting up lay review boards in every diocese, promising greater transparency and removing priests wholesale. More than 300 have been taken out of ministry so far this year.

In the run-up to the bishops' watershed meeting in Dallas in mid-June, at which they voted to remove any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor, Gregory worked to keep all other issues off the agenda. Homosexuality in seminaries, the merits and demerits of celibacy, the role of women and the laity, all took a back seat to the urgency of assuring the public that the church would report child abuse allegations to civil authorities and permanently remove all past abusers from ministry.

"My goal in Dallas was to focus primarily on the issue of protection of children," Gregory said in an interview. "I knew and I still know there are other issues out there that are serious and important, and they need their moment in the sun. But I had to keep the spotlight on that one particular dimension, because that's what Catholic people wanted us to do."

Gregory's opening address to the conference did open up one other issue: the accountability of the bishops themselves.

"We are the ones," he told his brothers, "who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry . . . who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests . . . [who] responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church."

The speech, written by Gregory and not a ghostwriter, catapulted him to national prominence. Suddenly, a relatively young bishop from a backwater diocese, one of only 13 black bishops in the United States, eclipsed all of the nation's elderly, white, big-city cardinals as the chief spokesman and most sympathetic face of the church in its hour of trouble.

"His directing of the criticism to the bishops themselves struck a true, right note which I was afraid the bishops were going to evade," said Michael Novak, a Catholic philosopher at the American Enterprise Institute.

Novak is part of a rising chorus of conservatives who believe the bishops "hung their priests out to dry" in Dallas. He contends that the conference was stampeded by the media into adopting a "zero tolerance" policy that does not allow for the possibility of repentance and redemption. Yet he does not blame Gregory.

"I fault the bishops as a whole. Bishop Gregory is the orchestra leader, if you will, but the music comes from other people," Novak said.

Parents Were Not Catholic

Gregory defines himself as "theologically conservative but socially progressive," saying he believes strongly in the church's mission to lift up the downtrodden, but bridles at the liberal notion that Pope John Paul II has cut short the parade of reforms that began with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

"I really chafe when I hear people using the umbrella of the Second Vatican Council to suggest all kinds of theological opinions that are to be found no place in the council," he said, citing proposals for ordaining women as an example.

He describes his centrism as a matter of "conscious choice." As president of the bishops' conference, "I am to do the will of the bishops," he said. "I can't get too far out ahead of the body."

Gregory was raised in a working poor family on Chicago's South Side. His mother, from whom he got his resonant voice, is a singer who played the role of Aunt Jemima in radio ads and pancake breakfasts sponsored by Quaker Oats. His father is a retired computer technician. Neither was Catholic. They divorced when he was a youngster, and his maternal grandmother, who had attended Catholic boarding school, moved in to help raise Gregory and two younger sisters.

When Gregory entered the 6th grade in 1958, his mother and grandmother enrolled him in a parochial school run by Dominican sisters that had begun to accept black children. Tuition was $40 a year and to pay it his grandmother did the nuns' laundry and cooking on weekends.

Gregory instantly adored the school, the pageantry of Mass and the excitement of the church, which in the fall of 1958 was getting a new pope, John XXIII, who would go on to convene Vatican II. Within six weeks, he announced that he wanted to become a priest. Gregory loves to recount the reaction of the parish priest, the Rev. John Hayes: "Don't you think it would help to become a Catholic first?"

With Hayes's help, Gregory converted and was baptized. He remained in Catholic schools and seminaries for more than 16 years, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.

When he was named a bishop and had to design a coat of arms, he reflected the major influences on his life; most prominently, it bears a cross in the African American colors of black, green and red. Yet even Gregory's closest friends disagree on what motivates him, other than intense faith and gratitude toward the Catholic Church.

"It's unfortunate that people can't understand him for who he is. Like his liking the liturgy, his liking Rome. People take that as ultra-conservative," said the Rev. Larry Craig, a prison minister in Chicago who has known Gregory since the long-haired '60s.

"I really believe that Wilton has chosen this way to do something for the African American community. There are some guys who are always protesting, throwing bricks. . . . I think Wilton chooses to work from inside the power structure," Craig said.

The Rev. Robert H. Byrne of Mount Pleasant, Mich., a golf partner of Gregory's who has known him since graduate school in the late 1970s, thinks otherwise. Gregory hates stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes, Byrne said. "But I don't think he thinks to himself, 'I'm doing this for black people.' It may be part of him in there somewhere. But it's not a motivating force in his life."

Asked which of his friends is right, Gregory said, "They both are."

But he also notes that during the "six wonderful weeks" between his election to a three-year term as president of the bishops' conference in late 2001 and the beginning of the nationwide sexual abuse scandal in early 2002, there was a lot of buzz about his being the first African American in that post. That buzz has now stopped.

"There is a blessing about that. The blessing is that people are looking to me for gifts rather than for race, for wisdom rather than for heritage, for courage rather than for preconceived notions of what black people think or will do," Gregory said. "And when it's over, and it will be over, I hope that I will be judged, as Dr. King said, by the content of my character."