Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons

St. Augustine Catholic Church is the oldest African American congregation in Washington.

St. Augustine Catholic Church is the oldest African American congregation in Washington.

Pope Francis has appointed Wilton Gregory as the next archbishop of Washington. Gregory is the only living African American archbishop in the United States. Now at the helm of one of the most prominent archdiocese in the country, he is set to become the first Black American to be made a cardinal.

Gregory is tasked with rebuilding trust in the local Catholic community, as two former archbishops have recently been folded into the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals. But Gregory is well prepared to take on this crisis: The archbishop helped craft guidelines to protect children and young people from abuse in the Catholic Church directly after the clergy scandal of the early 2000s.

We’ll talk with a local religious leader and a religion reporter about the challenges that Archbishop Gregory will face in Washington and what his appointment means to Washington’s Catholic community.

Produced by Cydney Grannan and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff


  • Father Patrick Smith Pastor, St. Augustine Catholic Church
  • Julie Zauzmer Religion Reporter, The Washington Post; @JulieZauzmer


  • 12:00:11

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the program we sit down with the interim head of the D.C. RA, the District's Regulatory Agency. But first, last Thursday Pope Francis named a new archbishop to Washington, one of the most powerful archdiocese in the country.

  • 12:00:30

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSWilton Gregory is the only living African American archbishop in the U.S. and is said to be the first black archbishop of a major American city. Gregory accepts this position in a diocese that has been grappling with two leadership sex abuse scandals in the past year. Joining us to talk about what Gregory's appointment means for Washington are Julie Zauzmer. She's a religion reporter at The Washington Post. Hi, Julie.

  • 12:00:54

    JULIE ZAUMERHi, thanks for having me.

  • 12:00:56

    SIMONSAnd Father Patrick Smith is the pastor at St. Augustine Catholic Church, the oldest black Catholic Church in Washington.

  • 12:01:02

    FATHER PATRICK SMITHGood to be here.

  • 12:01:03

    SIMONSThanks for joining us. Julie, I'll start with you. Wilton Gregory comes to Washington from Atlanta, where he served as archbishop for 14 years. What his reputation like there and how is he viewed in the Catholic Church in general?

  • 12:01:15

    ZAUMERI've been in Atlanta the past few days talking to a lot of people in churches there, who genuinely feel very positively about him. They're going to miss him as their archbishop. He's a people person. He likes to go into parishes and get to know people. They say he's great with kids. In terms of his reputation in the church he has a long history. He's been a bishop for decades. And in particular he has dealt with the issue of sexual abuse over and over in his time in the diocese at Bellville when he was the president of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And now he'll be taking on this role in Washington.

  • 12:01:53

    SIMONSOkay. And so now he's apparently so well liked that some have actually questioned why he didn't been archbishop of a more prominent city or even a cardinal earlier. What have you heard?

  • 12:02:04

    ZAUMERThat's true. That is a question that I have heard. I've heard people, who are very involved in the archdiocese in Atlanta say, "Oh yeah. We were thinking he would be tapped as a cardinal a while ago." This is sort of his moment. Pope Francis and Archbishop Gregory are sort of on the same wave length. He is a Pope Francis type of leader and it makes sense that Pope Francis would pick him when he has this big opening to fill.

  • 12:02:29

    SIMONSExactly. And speaking of that this is a pretty prominent appointment. You know, Washington isn't one of the biggest dioceses in the nation. Atlanta, for example, has about double the catholic population that we have here. So can you tell us why is this position considered such a powerful one?

  • 12:02:43

    ZAUMERWell, for two reasons. You're right. It's not the number of Catholics. There's half as many as he's been leading in Atlanta and it's a far smaller archdiocese geographically. It's five counties in D.C. comparing to 69 counties in Georgia. But there's two things about Washington that make it special. First, it's the nation's capital. There traditionally have been varying levels of political influence for the archbishop. But potentially the archbishop of Washington can really be in those conversations in the White House on Capitol Hill having a lot of influence. Second, there are institutions that are based here. By being the archbishop of Washington Archbishop Gregory is not overseeing all of catholic university, the bishop's university, for example. There's a number of institutions in Washington that are now his to lead.

  • 12:03:31

    SIMONSFather Smith, I want to bring you in to the conversation. You're the pastor at St. Augustine Catholic Church, the oldest African American congregation here in Washington. Can you give us a sense first of all of the history of the black catholic community that we have here?

  • 12:03:45

    SMITHYeah. Well, there's a long history. Just even our parish -- again, being the oldest parish at St. Augustine goes back to 1858. And even before that our community actually existed, but in the basement of St. Matthew's Church at the time before becoming St. Matthew's Cathedral. So you have a long history of just, not only emancipated slaves, but free blacks. (unintelligible) was founded by both free blacks and those who had never been slaves and emancipated slaves. So, again, history and also as you know, also being the home of Howard University, a historical university not far from our parish. Again, it's a long history of both African American and black Catholics in particular.

  • 12:04:22

    SIMONSHow large is the black catholic population in Washington?

  • 12:04:25

    SMITHThat's actually a good question. I can't --

  • 12:04:29

    SIMONSI know we have some 650,000 Catholics here. It sounds like from what I've read at least the number is pretty equal to the white catholic population.

  • 12:04:38

    SMITHYes. Yeah. I think. And that's been more of -- with sort of gentrification in the city, you know, I think it's been less African Americans. But we've had as far as one of the larger black catholic populations in dioceses across the country.

  • 12:04:53

    SIMONSSo what was your reaction when you found out that Pope Francis had appointed Archbishop Gregory to Washington?

  • 12:04:58

    SMITHWell, it was a big deal. I think that, you know, when you look the history that often, you know, some people say, "Well, race shouldn't matter." But we know for a fact race has always mattered and usually in a negative way. Race was a disqualifier. You know, you couldn't be a leader in the Catholic Church, because, you know, they didn't allows black priests or didn't have black nuns or black bishops. Now we have an archbishop. So I think this appointment by Pope Francis at least makes it very clear that race will not be a disqualifier for leading such a diocese of Washington.

  • 12:05:26

    SIMONSSpeaking of race, you know, he's as I mentioned earlier the only living African American archbishop. And as with most Washington archbishops, he will likely be made a cardinal. Do you think that this is a push from the Catholic Church for more diverse leadership?

  • 12:05:40

    SMITHI think with, again, Pope Francis seeing the need and willing to make an appointment like this in such -- for the first time in one of the key diocese that typically -- where people do become -- priests do become cardinals and that would be L.A., Chicago, New York. And so it's a big deal that literally he's the leader of this diocese for the first time in history.

  • 12:06:01

    SIMONSJulie, what are your thoughts on diversity in the Catholic Church?

  • 12:06:04

    ZAUMERThe African American Catholic population is a fascinating community that has been sadly sort of kept to itself for a long time by segregation. There were people I talked to in Atlanta who said they remember growing up when there was no Catholic Church on the eastside of Atlanta that wasn't segregated whites only. And black Catholics were meeting in their homes. They were meeting in a hospital chapel and they eventually founded black parishes, and had to have their own parish.

  • 12:06:36

    ZAUMERAnd for these women, I talked to in Atlanta, to grow up with that kind of history and now have seen their archdiocese lead by a black archbishop and now see that archbishop go to become the archbishop of Washington, it's significant for them to see that history in their lifetime. And it's significant for the Catholic Church to have overcome this really ugly history of segregating black Catholics.

  • 12:06:59

    SIMONSYeah. And you mentioned this earlier, Julie. But he is inheriting an archdiocese that's, you know, recently struggling with, you know, larger sex abuse scandals that have impacted the church. Now the past two archbishops have been implicated in clergy sexual abuse scandals. Although in different ways, right?

  • 12:07:13


  • 12:07:14

    SIMONSCan you just remind us -- walk us through what has actually happened here as it has elsewhere?

  • 12:07:19

    ZAUMERRight. So the previous two archbishops of Washington were now -- Mr. McCarrick, he's no longer even cardinal or archbishop McCarrick. He was defrocked because he -- as we found out in the past year had been accused of abusing both minors and adults going back decades. These allegations came to light and Theodore McCarrick was defrocked. It's the first U.S. cardinal ever defrocked for sexual abuse. So he was the archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006.

  • 12:07:52

    ZAUMERThen from 2006 until this year, Cardinal Wuerl was leading the archdiocese. Cardinal Wuerl in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that came out this summer was a key figure in this Grand Jury report. The Pennsylvania jury said that he had a very mixed record of handling abuse when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh before he came to Washington. He sometimes handled these cases very well, and he sometimes put men, who were abusers back into ministry.

  • 12:08:23

    ZAUMERThat sparked lots of protest here in Washington. He eventually decided to retire early and that's why we need a new archbishop. So Archbishop Gregory is coming into a position where the men, who have lead this archdiocese for the past almost 20 years have both been disgraced just in the past year. It's a time of turmoil and he has a big job to try to reassure people here.

  • 12:08:47

    SIMONSNow before we take some calls, I want to know from either of you, how have local Catholics responded to these revelations that Julie just mentioned?

  • 12:08:56

    SMITHI wouldn't say that -- I mean, you know, the word scandal means an obstacle. And I think that it really it's been -- you know, Jesus says that for those have been given much, much is expected or required of them. So I think that we always, you know, we expect that, again, our bishops and leaders will lead the life that they're going to live. So that's always kind of a heartbreak for the community. So I think -- I think some have, you know, reacted where just complete sort of pulling away. And say, "I'm not going to give. I don't want to be a part of the church." And then others who I think valiantly and faithfully said, you know, that they could recognize the faults of leaders, but, you know, that they're continuing to practice their faith. But I think there's also a call for accountability.

  • 12:09:32

    SIMONSLet's take a call from Cindy in Washington. Hi, Cindy. You're on the air.

  • 12:09:36

    CINDYHi there. I'm an ex-Catholic, because I think the Catholic Church is so flawed with racism and excessive money wasted by the clergy. I want to know why everybody is talking about this new bishop without discussing the fact that when -- I think in 2014 under the direction of Pope Francis he had to sell what was a $2.2 million mansion he bought in the Buckhead section of Atlanta with church funds. $2.2 doesn't sound like a lot of money in Washington. But it's a lot of money in Atlanta. It was a big luxurious home.

  • 12:10:16

    SIMONSGood question, Cindy. Julie, you sort of hinted to that earlier. That he's sort of not been fully without scandal.

  • 12:10:23

    ZAUMERRight. There's a number of things we could talk about that have provoked controversy and the house is absolutely one of them. I'm glad you brought that up, Cindy. What happened with this house was that -- it was actually one of Atlanta's most famous citizens, Margaret Mitchell who wrote "Gone with the Wind," her nephew when he died left $15 million to the archdiocese of Atlanta and specifically to the Cathedral Parish where he'd been a member. And he said, "Use this for the parish and use it for charity." Part of the parish's interpretation of using it for the parish was that he also left them his house in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, this very ritzy neighborhood.

  • 12:11:03

    ZAUMERThey decided to tear down his house. Build this $2.2 million mansion mostly out of his funds and move Archbishop Gregory into this house and move seven priests into the house Archbishop Gregory had been living in, because they said they needed more space. This came out in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Catholics in Atlanta were scandalized. He said he would sell the house and he moved out of this $2.2 million dollar mansion that they had just built. That is certainly something that is still in his past. He has apologized for it. He said he realized that he needed to focus on the needs of the poor in the archdiocese and not on this house, but it's something people remember.

  • 12:11:48

    SIMONSYeah, it doesn't quite go away, right? Now Archbishop Gregory has also dealt with the issue of sex abuse before. Namely when the massive scandal in the early 2000s happened in Boston. How was he involved in that?

  • 12:12:02

    ZAUMERAt that point in time he happened to be the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when the Boston Globe published their 2002 expose and really told the country about what was happening with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. And he was the person, who was in the positions of gathering all the bishops in the United States. He brought them together in Dallas and they came out in 2004 with what they called the "Dallas Charter," which the main outcome of that was zero tolerance for priests accused of abuse. If you were credibly accused you are not a priest anymore. You're not in ministry.

  • 12:12:37

    ZAUMERThat was by many people hailed as a success of Archbishop Gregory really taking leadership and putting the U.S. on the right track. In the current years scandals when we've been looking at these Grand Jury reports, at Cardinal McCarrick, one topic that has come up a lot is revisiting that "Dallas Charter" and saying, Well it did a good job with priests, but it didn't deal with leadership. It didn't talk about what you do when the bishop is the one who's overseeing abuse priests or is the one who is committing the abuse himself.

  • 12:13:11

    SIMONSLike it didn't improve oversight of bishops, who did not report abuse.

  • 12:13:16

    ZAUMERRight. That's really the next frontier, which the U.S. bishops tried to take on this fall at their meeting for all the bishops and got a surprise last moment letter from the Vatican saying, don't do anything about abuse. Don't take any action. They're going to try again perhaps as soon as this summer, but it's a big open question.

  • 12:13:36

    SIMONSFather Smith, many Catholics in the Washington diocese struggled with their relationship with the church as we just heard from caller Cindy. You know, when those scandals with Wuerl and McCarrick emerged over the past year, how did your congregation respond? And how did you address these issues with them? Did you talk about it in your sermons?

  • 12:13:53

    SMITHOh, absolutely. I think that -- obvious response was anger, disillusionment, frustration. And I think -- and it was very important that I did talk about it on regularly and relate it to the Scriptures. And I got -- many said, you know, thank you just for talking about it. But also I think what I really tried to do with our congregation -- and fortunately, you know, we haven't seen like a drop in giving, but because we talked about it. And I think -- what I said, you know, scandal actually is not new in the church. I mean, scandal is always back to Judas, I mean, so the very beginning.

  • 12:14:25

    SMITHBut really what I said, you know, God's response to scandal in a sense is not only remarkable, but remarkably consistent. You know, when people are, you know, fall into an extraordinary vice, he raises the people of extraordinary virtue. And that's the invitation that says, so, God is asking so that you can say yes or no. And I think so in our congregation people said, Yeah, I'm not going to be less committed. I'm going to get more committed.

  • 12:14:46

    SMITHBut I think at the same time we did have a couple of listening sessions. And where I think we realized that really the only way to ultimately to overcome -- you know, when you've lost trust, how do you restore trust? Well, one thing is very clear. Words alone do not restore trust. Letters don't restore trust. Only action restores trust. And so I think -- when you want to restore trust you don't say, trust me, you say, watch me.

  • 12:15:12

    SIMONSActions. It's actions.

  • 12:15:13

    SMITHActions. So I think we want to be vigilant, but also hopeful and prayerful that the actions will actually happen that need to be done to bring healing and reconciliation and reform.

  • 12:15:24

    SIMONSYeah. And listening to speak last week as well, I remember he made several references in his speech about transparency. That was his, you know, his key. You know, he said moving forward that's he plans to be.

  • 12:15:34

    ZAUMERAnd listening.

  • 12:15:35

    SIMONSAnd listening. And I think you said the key there. You said, "Scandal isn't new," right? This is sort of an old problem. I have Pastor Favor on the line from Manassas, Pastor Favor.

  • 12:15:47

    PASTOR FAVORYes. My comments are twofold. First of all, let's correct the impression. There is nothing like Catholics. They are Roman Catholics. Catholic is universal church. So when you use the word Catholics you're blanketing everybody as belonging to that. That's number one. Number two, I think there is a problem with unforgiveness generally. We're hammering on this priests' sexual abuse as if it's an unforgivable sin. Then it just tells us that somehow the message of the church that Christ forgives people hasn't sunk in. That should be the troubling part of this whole sex abuse issue. We are seeing people over and over going to the Vatican, going everywhere.

  • 12:16:49

    PASTOR FAVORThey want to hold people accountable. They want to hold -- but holding people accountable, would it bring back what was done 10 years ago, 20 years ago? It won't. We have to learn to forgive. Leaving the church for another congregation is not going to solve the problem. We are human beings. These things will continue to happen in all human gatherings.

  • 12:17:14

    SIMONSOkay. Good point, Pastor Favor. What do you have to say to that Father Smith?

  • 12:17:18

    ZAUMERCertainly the mission of the church is rooted in forgiveness and a call to forgiveness and mercy is a gift that's never deserved. However, you know, in order for that to happen and healing to be a witness (unintelligible) a witness, only a credible witness is believed. And so part of it is being willing to own up to faults. You know, and I think that even with the coming archbishop and some of the things that were mentioned that at least he's owned up said, you know, you know what? It was wrong. I shouldn't -- and so we sold that house. And so it said that he was angry after leading, you know, being the leading bishop in the "Dallas Charter." And, you know, he said that -- with the recent scandals, you know, he said that, "I was angry. I was angry. I gave a promise to the American people that this won't continue." And so it's, you know, but acknowledge that it is and it's saddening and angering.

  • 12:18:05

    SMITHBut I think that first and foremost you have to own up I think. And so forgiveness absolutely. We will call to it. But I can't I -- if I hurt you. I can't demand you forgive me. Forgiveness is a gift. And so -- what I do is try and own up and I apologize. I actually genuinely show that I'm sorry, but also are my actions. That I want to heal and I want to help and I think that's what moves people to forgive. So there's a responsibility on both sides. It's not just automatic. You know, if I've hurt you, I demand you forgive me. That's not how forgiveness works.

  • 12:18:38

    SIMONSWe'd be remise, Julie, to not talk about the importance the Archbishop of Washington has when it comes to politics. How have past archbishops interacted with official Washington? And what relationship do we expect Gregory will have based on his past leadership in Atlanta?

  • 12:18:51

    ZAUMERA lot of it does have to do with the personality of the archbishop and the interest of the archbishop. When McCarrick was leading the archdiocese he was quite visible as a presence in political Washington. Even long after his time as archbishop, he was a diplomat not only for the Vatican traveling the world to spots of conflict, but sometimes for the U.S. State Department. They actually sent him to places where a religious voice could be useful. He was very comfortable getting involved with power players.

  • 12:19:21

    ZAUMERCardinal Wuerl has been a bit more modest in that, but still absolutely trying to keep open those lines of communication. He said to me actually several months into the Trump Administration, we were talking, and he said, you know, this White House, I'm never on the phone with them, the way that he was with the Obama White House because the Trump White House has been quite unusual in that instead of having a faith advisory board and having people from all different faiths, they really just have an evangelical advisory board. And they're only listening to Evangelical Christians.

  • 12:19:57

    SIMONSSo very quickly, how politically active do you expect Archbishop Gregory to be or not?

  • 12:20:01

    ZAUMERI think that he is not someone who's obviously political. He has a couple of issues particularly the death penalty that he's very outspoken about. But he hasn't gotten too involved in current day issues happening in Atlanta. He said in his press conference he says, you know, they didn't elect me to Congress, basically. But it's a political job and he's going to have to be somewhat political in this job.

  • 12:20:24

    SIMONSAnd your thoughts Father Smith?

  • 12:20:25

    SMITHI think -- same thing. I think that he's first -- his role as a shepherd. A shepherd of the people, shepherd of the diocese, and I think he wants to do that to meet people and to be that, to have the heart of a shepherd, as Pope Francis would say, to have the smell of the sheep, which only happens when you are next to them and close to them.

  • 12:20:41

    SIMONSJulie Zauzmer, Father Patrick Smith, thanks for joining us.

  • 12:20:43

    SMITHYou're welcome.

  • 12:20:44

    ZAUMERThank you.

  • 12:20:45

    SIMONSWe'll return after a short break. Stay tuned.

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