Tarnished Angel

The more he talks, the more Wilton Gregory sounds like every other bishop in the Catholic Church

It's a thankless duty that Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory has been asked to repeatedly fulfill in recent months.

Stand in front of the cameras. Explain how the Vatican didn't undermine a new get-tough stance on sex-abusing priests -- even though that's exactly what happened. Repeat as necessary because it's your job as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to defend the indefensible and explain the inexplicable.

With Vatican bureaucrats maneuvering to gut the promise made this summer by American bishops of a more open review of priest sex-abuse cases by laity and behavioral experts, Gregory has been called on to again provide a plausible cover for this rollback. In essence, he's been asked to explain how placing the final decision on these cases back in the hands of the clergy is anything other than what it appears to be -- a repudiation of the zero-tolerance stance American bishops took in Dallas on sex abuse by priests.

"They made some sweeping promises in Dallas that never again will a man who molests a child be in public ministry, only to have the Vatican pull the rug out from underneath," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (a.k.a. SNAP). "Gregory and his fellow American bishops are desperately trying to save face, insisting that this is just minor tweaking when what it really is is radical surgery."

"Butcher's work" would be a better description. The deal cut by hidebound Vatican bureaucrats and four bishops representing the American side places a statute of limitations on some abuse cases and gives church tribunals the final word on whether accused priests get bounced from the ministry. And that means a return to the main bone of contention advocates such as Clohessy have with the way the church has dealt with abuse cases in the past -- guys in Roman collars judging other guys in Roman collars.

"Clerics investigating sex-abuse claims is exactly what got us into this mess to begin with," says Clohessy. "Gregory's in an awful bind now. He's got to defend to a very upset Catholic population in America these very substantive retreats these old, out-of-touch Vatican bureaucrats have insisted upon."

The Dallas agreement set up two different groups of laity and behavioral experts to review sex-abuse cases -- an advisory group of civilians. It also gave bishops the power to administratively remove accused priests. But the Vatican fell victim to a sudden attack of civil-liberties consciousness, expressing concerns about whether accused priests were getting due process, jealously guarding the authority of archbishops and pushing for a church tribunal that can trump the findings of any and all civilians.

That left Gregory to stretch a fig leaf between what was agreed to in Dallas and what the Vatican did.

"We're dealing with basically a sound document that needs modification rather than recasting," Gregory told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Nothing has been ruled out. I don't believe this is a moment where we have to re-create the wheel."

Maybe not.

But it's clear that the new deal cooked up by the Vatican has busted the spiritual spokes of the Dallas agreement.

The biggest casualty in this monumental flip-flop is Gregory's reputation. Since the mid-1990s, Gregory has removed roughly a dozen priests in the Belleville Diocese who have been accused of sexual abuse. He has also met repeatedly with parishioners to explain his actions and touted a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse that earned him a reputation for openness and flexibility that stood in marked contrast to the stonewalling, denial and lawsuit payoffs common to other archdioceses.

"That's what distinguished him from his colleagues," says Clohessy. "He's been riding high because he was out ahead of the curve. He developed a reputation as a pioneer on this issue."

He also earned the brand of a maverick who was clearly willing to go against the church hierarchy to do what he thought was right, earning him laurels from advocates such as Clohessy.

No longer.

The more he talks, the more Gregory sounds like every other bishop in the Catholic Church. The best thing that can be said about Gregory these days is that he's a waffler, a spin doctor back in the service of the church hierarchy.

And as the American bishops gather at their annual conference in Washington, D.C., this week, this comparison becomes all the easier to make.

"One can be cynical and say that despite his high profile, Gregory's just as flawed as his brother bishops," says Clohessy.

This brings Gregory ever closer to the image of the man across the river, the colleague he's been held up to the most to serve as contrast to -- Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis.

There was a time when the differences between the two men were plain and simple. Gregory was the bold one, confronting the sex-abuse scandal head-on. Rigali, seen as a cold and aloof product of the Vatican [Jeannette Batz, "The Reluctant Archbishop," this issue], was the traditionalist who refused to deal with the issue directly, hiding behind ceremony and station and dodging a direct, personal connection with parishioners demanding direct action as sex scandals broke across the pages of the Post-Dispatch.

"An American CEO knows he can't just hunker down and ignore the media and ignore his constituents and think that a scandal will go away," says Clohessy.

Rigali's communications director, Jim Orso, says the image of an archbishop trying to remain above the fray is unjustified. Since April, Orso says, Rigali has met with priests and deacons throughout the 217-parish diocese to explain why priests were being removed and what the response to future sex-abuse allegations would be. In June, he held a meeting at St. Raymond's Maronite Church and asked every parish to send a representative.

"The archdiocese really does want to communicate to as many parishes and parishioners as possible on this issue," says Orso. "He's gotten the message out. He communicates it through the priests, which is the proper way to get the message out to the parishes."

Whenever somebody wanted a poster child for how to handle a scandal, they could point to Gregory. When they wanted just the opposite, there was Rigali. Orso says such comparisons are unfair.

"That's a tough comparison to make," Orso says. "Gregory is beholden to Catholics across the U.S. He's more out there as a public figure."

The chief knock on Rigali was one of image and the appearance that he was ignoring pleas for an open dialogue on this painful topic. The faithful seemed to long for that human touch. Until recently, they got it from Gregory. Last month, they got it from Archbishop Tim Dolan of Milwaukee, who was once Rigali's auxiliary bishop. Dolan held two sessions with victims of abuse. He opened with these simple words: "I cannot say 'I'm sorry' enough."

But this isn't where Bishop Wilton Gregory now finds himself. He's standing on far different ground these days.

No longer a maverick. No longer a pioneer.

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