Who is Wilton Gregory, Pope Francis’s pick to be Washington’s next archbishop?

When the first Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted in the early 2000s, Wilton Gregory led hundreds of defensive and divided bishops in passing the most aggressive action on abuse in U.S. church history. But Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke remembers something else about Gregory, who was selected this month by Pope Francis to head the prestigious D.C. archdiocese.

As one of the laypeople Gregory appointed to serve on an advisory board to the bishops, Burke was struck by an inquiry he made to her one night when they found themselves alone after a meeting. He wanted to know how she’d been able to visit Vatican officials for her research on abuse.

She’d Googled “Vatican,” she told him, selected several offices she thought were related to the abuse issue, then faxed letters asking to visit.

“His face was ashen. ‘You what?’ ” she recalls him saying. At 55, that was, she believed, Gregory’s first experience with lay­people who went outside the chain of command.

His shock at her ability to get around protocol startled her, she said, and told her something important — that it was nearly impossible for Gregory to see things from an outside-the-church perspective. “His whole life has been devoted to this institution that’s a bureaucracy — to the point where he doesn’t know how infiltrated he is in that fabric.”

That tendency not to push the boundaries too far was on display in his role at the time as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which he presided over the groundbreaking zero-tolerance policy enacted in what was called the Dallas Charter. The bishops decided to include only priests in the oversight efforts, after considering and then rejecting even an attempt to include any accountability for themselves — an omission that is now a target of criticism.

Before he was the face of the church’s reform efforts after the scandal in Boston, Gregory was a cleanup man in rural Illinois after a massive abuse scandal, and for 15 years he has been the country’s sole black archbishop, most recently serving in Atlanta. In one high-profile role after another throughout his career, he has reacted to scandal and tumult by pushing the envelope in some ways, but always with a nonconfrontational style that doesn’t ultimately challenge the system itself.

With the Archdiocese of Washington since last summer the epicenter of the national crisis, Gregory, 71, once again steps in as the head of a church in turmoil. In what is argua...

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