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The Bishop's Quandary

Jul 21, 2002 | The Boston Globe

This is the way the weather comes. The dust rises. The grass waves. The corn shivers, and the trees shake. The sky lowers and it almost seems suspended on the quivering treetops, and then the weather arrives, all at once: rain and thunder, and lightning striking down in jagged veins until you can smell the ozone burning like a great unbridled fire at the heart of the sky. This is the way the weather comes, swift and sudden, its momentum ceaseless and inexorable, hammering down on the barns and bean fields of southern Illinois, down on the city of Belleville, thrumming off the copper roof of the cathedral from every direction that the wind can bring it down.

Through the stained-glass windows depicting hero priests being scalped by wild Indians, the lightning flashes in deeper colors. The thunder is a distant, choral counterpoint to the singing of a line of priests, walking slowly up the center aisle toward the altar. They've come to honor with a liturgy older priests, some of whom have served for 60 years. The bishop of Belleville will preside over the Mass, and he is in fine voice this evening, singing past the thunder and the steady, percussive rain. As he turns up the center aisle, the bishop winks at a camera crew from Chicago that has come to tape a story about him, because the bishop of Belleville is not just any bishop anymore.

Wilton Gregory stands out in the procession, and not simply because of the accouterments of his office, and not simply because of the touch of kente cloth that adorns both his miter and the stole that drapes his shoulders. Consecrated a bishop when he was only 35 years old, today, at 54, he's a generation younger than several of the priests whom he is honoring. His face is round and animated, and there is still a sort of roll to his walk. Also, he's African-American, and this line of priests is whiter than the Politburo ever was. And he stands out because he is the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has made him the public face on the greatest crisis the Roman Catholic Church has known since the days in which it was saddled with two popes who hated each other.

Gregory has watched the scandal of clerical sexual abuse run through the church like an underground fire, breaking to the surface here and there until it erupted into a general conflagration over the past year. In the mid-1980s, Gregory saw his mentor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, develop one of the first policies to deal with the crimes of the clergy and vainly urge it upon the church at large. (He even saw Bernardin, now deceased, himself falsely accused of sexual abuse and survive only because he confronted the charges openly.) In 1993, when Bernardin sent him to Belleville, Gregory walked into a rat's nest of baroque sexual corruption, highlighted by a burglary carried out at one priest's home by a male prostitute from whom the priest regularly received massages in the nude.

As president of the bishops' conference, then, Gregory confronts a scandal with which he is completely familiar, and he does so out of a unique personal history inside the church that paradoxically makes him the perfect outsider to come in swinging the 11th chapter of Mark at those people in the church whose sins are so much worse than money-changing. At the same time, there's a career path that leads into the church's hierarchy and, on that track, Gregory has been a lifer, as clearly marked for the red hat of a cardinal as young British men were once marked for the sword belt. Early in his career as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, Gregory was ordered to close the parish in which his Catholicism was first nurtured. He complied without argument.

Nobody knows how far the scandal will push him or how far Gregory is willing to push the church in response to it. He is the outsider who plays inside, his face so different from the face of his church that some people see a power in that very difference, if Gregory would only wield it. From the pulpit, he tells his brother priests that they "have gathered together for a jubilee," and there is something different in the way that he says "jubilee," something round and full and melismatic, drawn from other pulpits and from traditions other than the prideful Catholic one.

"We must live our lives as though we believe that there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed," he concludes. "We are liars and we are fools if we do not." You can hear him, barely but clearly, over the thunder that cracks again outside.

The Dallas meeting made him a star. there's no doubt about that. His opening address at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual meeting in June - a meeting that was attended by far more journalists than bishops - was an apology steeped in the language of sacramental penance, and, ultimately, it was far better received than the policy on sexual abuse that the conference ultimately produced. He appeared on Meet the Press. He took every question, and the meeting did produce some concrete change. For all intents and purposes, Wilton Gregory became simultaneously the face of institutional American Catholicism and the face of reform. And that's the bind he's in now, after Dallas, with the scandal still expanding in dozens of different directions.

After all, on this issue, the institutional church has the approximate credibility of a paper shredder, and Gregory finds himself in the position of leading a reform movement from the ranks of those very people most perceived to have created the need for reform in the first place. He's as influential within the church as any other reformer, and he's more of a reformer than anyone who's as influential. The question is no longer whether Gregory has accrued the public clout to move the church on this issue. He clearly has enough now to withstand even sniping from the Vatican. The question is how he'll use it, and whether he'll use it, and how his career as a creature of the institutional church will shape his responses to the pervasive rot within the institutions of that church itself.

"To me," he says, "prudence is the queen of all the virtues, because prudence puts all the other virtues in perspective - courage, enthusiasm, joy."

It's remarkable how little the daily life of the church has been changed by the global buffeting it has taken this year. The chancery in Belleville is still small and hushed. A woman named Florence Craig has been answering the phone there for somewhere between 40 and 150 years. Now, though, there are calls to field from newspapers and television networks, from Katie Couric's people in New York - the beeping, buzzing, jangled pursuit of a prudent man in an imprudent time. The formal structure of the church that Gregory says he "loves in my very fiber" is coming apart in a welter of carnal criminality that would have embarrassed the Borgias.

According to a survey conducted by The Washington Post, 300 civil suits alleging sexual abuse by Catholic clergy have been filed in the United States since January. In that time, 218 priests have been removed from their positions. In Boston, the cardinal-archbishop sees a Camp OJ spring up outside his residence. A bishop is suspended in Kentucky. The new sins uncover the old. Years earlier, a Connecticut priest fathers a child with a 16-year-old girl, and his bishop looks the other way. That bishop is now the cardinal-archbishop of New York. The circuit attorney in St. Louis, across the Mississippi River from Belleville, makes a public call for victims to come forward, and her office is soon drowning in the paperwork.

The Vatican's response is inconsistent and dilatory where it isn't openly loopy. The pope seems increasingly feeble and decreasingly sentient. People speak for him more often than he speaks for himself, and some of them do him no favors. In June, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a Honduran prelate who's been mentioned as a possible candidate for the papacy, compared the American media's treatment of scandal to the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. Meanwhile, American priests are going to jail. American cardinals are being deposed. The laity is slouching toward open revolt, and Wilton Gregory happens to be president of a national organization of people who seem to be trying to find a solution when they themselves are the problem.

"The problem is that drastic action would go counter to his basic orientation. He's a company man," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and an outspoken critic of the hierarchy. Indeed, Gregory's name seems to be on everyone's short list - and even there, the metastasizing scandal follows him. Until the appointment of Bishop Timothy M. Dolan to the post in June, Gregory had been mentioned as a possible successor to Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland, whose retirement was hastened by revelations that he'd paid $450,000 in hush money to a young man with whom Weakland had admitted "inappropriate conduct." And a more intriguing rumor has Gregory coming to Boston as a replacement for Cardinal Bernard Law, if only because it's hard to think of a more complete departure from the current regime than an African-American bishop with great personal credibility in rooting out sexual misconduct.

And that is the divide in Gregory, the place where the face of the corrupted institutional church morphs into the face of reform. This particular issue - the most important one the church has faced since Martin Luther, according to Gregory - always has moved him beyond where a more prudent prelate might go. He tells the story of one of the early cases that broke while he was an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, and a woman who worked with him insisted that the church must protect "its own," meaning the clergy, which it has done down through the years, to its everlasting embarrassment.

"I thought very long and hard about what she'd said, and she was a dear friend," Gregory recalls. "I thought, `Well, aren't these children our own? Aren't the parents of these children our own?' " His position on handing abusive priests over to the civil authorities has been clear and unbending, and it was radically ahead of its time. On this specific issue, he's always been far ahead of his church, and now his church is being defined in the public mind by this specific issue. His career is a dilemma now - what has come before, the careful ecclesiastical bureaucrat, seems to have come into perpetual collision with who he needs to be to solve a crisis of institutional corruption.

So, before Dallas, Gregory dismissed from the conversation any discussion of mandatory clerical celibacy and the ordination of women, two issues guaranteed to give Vatican conservatives the vapors. He appointed five bishops to a special ad hoc committee to devise a new policy on sexual abuse, and three of them turned out to have covered up abuse cases in their home dioceses. The policy that it produced is quickly dismissed as half a loaf - tough on priests who abuse children, but mushy on bishops who enable them. Within a month of the meeting, one national poll shows that two-thirds of American Catholics believe the policy to be too weak.

Yet, after Dallas, Gregory stood with Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating after Keating was appointed by the conference to head an outside advisory panel that will monitor the implementation of the new policy, and Keating said (theoretically, at least) that we might see some of Gregory's fellow bishops hauled off to the sneezer in handcuffs. The scandal continuously moves beyond all attempts to contain it. There is a grand jury here in Boston investigating Cardinal Law, and Boston College announced that it has embarked on a two-year study of institutional reform in the church that will include many of the topics that Gregory ruled out of bounds for the meeting in Dallas.

Gregory will move with the scandal, because he always has, and because he has more credibility on it now than almost any other American cleric. The ceaseless momentum of the scandal may move him beyond what might otherwise be comfortable for someone who insists, "I feel a call to be a prudent person. I've never wanted to be any kind of radical."

Every question demands an answer now, and the answers themselves will be more radical than anyone would have thought they'd be 20 years ago, when Wilton Gregory became a bishop. In April, for example, after a meeting in Rome, Gregory said at a press conference that the church must guard against its priesthood becoming "dominated" by gay men, a comment that set off alarms that the onus of the burgeoning scandal would fall upon Catholics who are gay. A few weeks later, in his wood-paneled office in the chancery, he's asked what might have happened if the laity had a right to know the sex lives of their priests. What would he have said, he's asked, if the follow-up question at that press conference had been whether he or any of the other prelates on the dais were gay?

"I imagine there would be a whole range of emotion," he says. "The emphasis is on healthy and celibate - living, with integrity, the promises that you make." He leans into his words, and they are clipped and precise, but his voice does not rise. Prudence is the queen of anger as well.

"People have a right to have their clergy live credible, integrated lives and to know that they do," he says. "I don't have to invite people into a private journey through my psyche any more than anyone else does. There's a certain moment that we're in where a sign of emotional well-being is that you let it all hang out. I'm sorry, but there are dimensions in every person's life that belong to private, psychic confidentiality. My life's issues - my personal being - may not be worthy of the front page."

A year ago, the whole line of inquiry was unthinkable. Now, it's obvious. A radical change, even a prudent man might admit. The question moves him, just a little bit, off that narrowing patch of middle ground on which men have defined themselves as priests of their church, and on which they decide whether what they have achieved is truly who they are.

He is a child of the Great Migration. One of his grandfathers was a coal miner in southern Illinois, not far from Belleville. Leanna Martin, his maternal great-grandmother, was a sharecropper who migrated from Oxford, Mississippi, working her way north through Nebraska and Iowa until she settled in Chicago, where she sent her two daughters farther north to Milwaukee to be educated by the Franciscans at St. Benedict the Moor, one of the few private boarding schools anywhere that would admit black students. As a condition of the children's acceptance, however, Gregory's grandmother and aunt were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. As soon as they were graduated, however, the two girls went back to being the good Protestants that they had been.

Born on December 7, 1947, Gregory grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where there was an unusually large African-American Catholic community. Remembering her mother's experience at St. Benedict's, his Protestant mother sent him to St. Carthage High School, where he fell in love with the pomp and spectacle of the Catholic liturgy. "He loves the majesty," says someone who's known him since high school. In 1959, when he was in sixth grade, his mother also allowed Gregory to be baptized as a Catholic, and some old friends say that she had herself baptized, too. Several black families in the neighborhood made the same decision that the Gregorys did, and St. Carthage found itself changed.

"All of a sudden, four black kids came in all together," recalls Sister Elizabeth Williams, who taught Gregory that year. "They told me they wanted to become Catholics, and they were so serious. I thought, `Wow, this is great. Serious children.' " Gregory moved on to Quigley Preparatory Seminary and then to St. Mary of the Lake, the Archdiocese of Chicago's seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. The liturgy still entranced him, and he was well-liked and admired for his singing voice, which he'd probably inherited from his mother, who once had made extra money singing the character of Aunt Jemima in radio ads for the pancake syrup.

Yet, there were moments when Gregory was reminded forcefully that he'd entered a world that in many ways was alien. In one seminary class, Gregory received grades that were consistently lower than those he received in his other classes. One day, the teacher made a pointed reference in class to "pickaninnies."

"He revealed his hand," recalls Gregory, who immediately went to the seminary administration and called the man out as a racist. He demanded that he be allowed to rewrite all his previous papers. The dean of studies graded the papers again, and Gregory received A's on every one of them. Still, whenever he and his fellow students wrangled about the direction of the church, Gregory often was the conservative in the group. "They told me, `Wilton, you're always defending the church,' " he recalls.

He was ordained in May 1973 during a turbulent time for Chicago's black Catholic community. Led by two priests, the Rev. Rollins Lambert and the Rev. George Clements, Chicago's black Catholics allied themselves with the various social-justice groups active on the South Side, including the Black Panther Party. (In 1969, after the Chicago police shot down two leaders of the party in their apartment, Bobby Rush, then a ranking member of the Black Panthers and now a US congressman, sought and was granted sanctuary from the Chicago Police Department in Clements's church.) After he was ordained, and after a stint studying liturgical theology at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, Gregory returned to Chicago.

"At the time," recalls Clements, "I was looked upon as kind of a maverick. The general attitude of most Catholics in Chicago was `Hey, do what you want to do in the ghetto, just don't come out where we are.' It was a time of great tension in Chicago, and Wilton was able to strike a balance there - not alienate the whites but still become very close with the blacks. It was good that we had somebody who could be the bridge. I didn't want him to get into trouble. I was in enough trouble for both of us."

Gregory's work as an instructor at Mundelein brought him to the attention of Cardinal Bernardin, who was attempting to rebuild the morale in Chicago after the fractious reign of Cardinal John Cody. Bernardin already was a force in the American church. Between 1974 and 1977, while president of the US bishops' conference, and with Pope Paul VI at the end of his pontificate, Bernardin had turned the conference into a powerful voice for the American church, speaking out on everything from church doctrine to nuclear weapons.

In 1979, when the vigorous John Paul II was elected, he began to transform the hierarchy into a more conservative body, and he cracked down generally on organizations like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Whatever influence the world at large believes the conference has today is a vestige of what Bernardin and others did with it in the 1970s.

In 1982, Bernardin brought Gregory into the chancery and, Gregory's friends noted, onto the clerical fast track. They traveled together as Bernardin worked to pull the archdiocese back together. A year later, Bernardin petitioned Rome to make Gregory an auxiliary bishop. He'd been a priest for only 10 years.

"Joe Bernardin took an enormous risk in sending my name to the Holy Father," Gregory says. "To have a 35-year-old named your auxiliary? That took some chutzpah. He'd known me, at best, a year and a half.

"I learned more from his good example than from anything he might have said. It was his own sense of equilibrium, a deep commitment to the work of the gospel, to the work of the conference of bishops, to working in a collaborative effort. I learned to be a man who enjoyed serving the church from him."

Gregory was a bishop in Chicago for nearly a decade. During that time, he worked with Bernardin on a number of issues, including complaints that priests had been sexually abusing children. The Chicago Archdiocese enacted a policy by which any accusation would be taken seriously and, among other things, would be reported to the civil authorities.

In 1992, Bernardin took 300 copies of the policy to the bishops' annual June meeting. Very few of his colleagues looked at it. "Some of these guys lived in a vacuum," recalls Monsignor Anthony Velo, a former aide to Bernardin in Chicago.

A year later, Bernardin began to hear horror stories from Belleville. A dozen priests - nearly 10 percent of the small diocese's total - were accused of abusing children. The bishop was being removed. A delegation from the diocese came to visit Bernardin, who once again sent Wilton Gregory's name to Rome.

They poured into southern Illinois - Germans, most of them, fleeing the political turmoil of the mid-19th century. The immigrants dug coal for someone else to afford farms of their own. They helped build the city of Belleville, of which they were very proud but which failed to impress Charles Dickens when he blew through town in 1842. "One unbroken slough of black mud and water," observed the author, who noted that Belleville's Main Street was "knee-deep in mud and slime." That same year, they were there to open St. Peter's Cathedral, modeled after one in Exeter in England, that the immigrants and their children helped to build on a hilltop downtown.

Some of them had left Germany because of their conservative Catholicism and others left because of their liberal politics, and the tension between the two groups is the presiding dynamic in the history of the diocese. Belleville's first pastor was briefly kidnapped and held in a stable - nice scriptural irony, that - during a squabble over a baptism. In 1876, when a local pastor attempted to enforce his ban on dancing, someone fired a bullet through his window. Nevertheless, when the cathedral burned down 70 years after its completion, everyone in town helped rebuild it within five years.

By the time Wilton Gregory was made bishop of Belleville at the end of 1993, the diocese sprawled over 11,000 square miles, ranging from the desolation of East St. Louis to the broad farmlands running east toward Indiana. There were more than 100,000 Catholics within its 125 parishes. And, when Gregory arrived, the diocese was in the same kind of shock that afflicted those people who'd stood in the snow in 1912 and watched the cathedral burn.

Over the previous nine months, the diocese had been buffeted by revelations concerning its priests. Some of the stories were recent. Another one went back 25 years. The priest who'd received the nude massages kept getting hauled into court in criminal cases involving his masseur, all of which made the newspapers. Moreover, in what is now a familiar pattern, the diocese had worked harder at covering up the abuse than in putting an end to it.

"One thing they did," recalls Sun Smith-Foret, a clinical social worker who, on behalf of the diocese, counseled some of the Belleville victims, "was elicit information from me about a client, and then use that information to negotiate with the client on behalf of the diocese." Eventually, Smith-Foret quit over what she saw as a hopeless conflict of interest. Not long afterward, Bishop James Keleher resigned and was replaced by Wilton Gregory.

"We saw in those early days that the most critical issue was the safety of the children," Gregory recalls. "We saw that we had no right to put children at risk. My first desire, of course, as a human being, was not to make a mistake. But if I have to make a mistake, I'd rather make one protecting children."

Gregory removed the 12 offending priests immediately, and he organized a diocesan pastoral council that met regularly to discuss all church issues, and which gave the laity a sense that it had some control in a church that seemed to have gone out of control. The contrast with what had gone before was striking. "I think he gets it," says Jennifer Joyce, the circuit attorney for nearby St. Louis who recently launched her own investigation of the problem in that city. "He seems to understand that this is a crime and not a character defect."

The decisive way in which Gregory confronted the general convulsion accumulated a deep reservoir of respect for him throughout the diocese. He then proceeded to charm people. "He kind of lights up inside," says Mary Stuermer, a member of the diocesan council and a good friend of the bishop. One day, while bringing communion to Stuermer's ailing father, Gregory got into an automobile accident in which his car was totaled.

"The next time I saw him, he told me, `Thanks to your dad, I got a new car,' " recalls Stuermer. In fact, Gregory's performance in the crisis almost instantly defused the issue of an African-American bishop coming to preside in southern Illinois, an area that historically was far more Southern than it was Illinois.

"It's closer to Mississippi than anywhere else," laughs Clements. "I warned him about that."

If you want to see the breadth of the scandal, get out of the church and get out of the city. Go out past the strip malls and the truck stops. Go down off the interstate and down the county roads that wind through the corn and the bean fields and past the old coal mines where the tourists now go. Go out there by Sesser and talk to the farmer, if you want to see the great reach of the thing.

"It's something you don't expect to see, here in this part of America," says Jeff Kiselewski. "We're rural America. You hear about this in Chicago, in St. Louis. Every place but here."

Kiselewski's grandfather came to Sesser to mine coal so he could work his farm. Kiselewski labors as a master electrician so he can work his. He's also president of the parish council at St. Mary's, the church that serves some 200 people spread out over Franklin County. On Wednesday, May 1, Kiselewski was driving to a parish council meeting when he heard on his car radio that the Rev. Edward Baliestieri, the popular 71-year-old acting pastor of St. Mary's, had been removed over allegations that he had molested a boy in 1975 while working at a parish in New Jersey. The next day, he got a letter from Bishop Gregory that said that the bishop would be coming to Sesser on Saturday to meet with the parishioners.

"He spent a little over an hour with us at the church," Kiselewski says. "He made sure to point out what the process was, and exactly what was going on, and he made sure that we knew he takes this kind of thing very seriously. Any rumors. Anything. He came down personally, and that makes a big difference."

Kiselewski saw that the process in place depended vitally upon acting on every allegation swiftly and transparently. Whereas in the past, charges of this sort would stay and fester within a community, now Gregory had moved so quickly that Kiselewski was a little disoriented by the trajectory of events, so much so that he's still worrying about Father Ed and about people "jumping on the bandwagon." He and the rest of the parish council now have to arrange to have a priest come to Sesser every Sunday to say Mass. "We got a circuit priest now," he says. But he believes that Gregory handled the situation in the only way possible.

"If guys are really doing wrong, they need to be pulled out of there," he says, walking down a driveway to where the road bends through the silence of the fields. "I really respect him for the stand he's taken, which a lot of bishops have not done. They kind of pushed it to the side. But if it can go on here, it can go on anywhere."

You could see the problem in the televised shots of the audience during the first day of the Dallas conference. After Wilton Gregory spoke, a group of abuse survivors got up and told the American bishops their stories, and the faces of the prelates were as implacable as the gargoyles on the Vatican. There was some obvious discomfort, but more than that, somehow, there was an air in the scene of affronted authority, as though listening to this catalog of outrage was simply infra dignitatem. Whether he wants it or not, Wilton Gregory's task must be to break through to those blank faces, to point out that, on this issue at least, whatever moral credibility they think accrues to their offices is as dead as St. Peter.

His success depends, at last, on whether or not it's any longer possible to be the face of American Catholicism and the face of reform. One thinks of George Clements, the old radical priest in Chicago, talking about how Gregory was able to work within the system without being labeled as a Tom for doing so. It's possible that this crisis in the church may push him beyond where he ever dreamed he'd go, beyond where he thinks is prudent. After all, the scandal itself has moved past decades of systematic deceit, past the empty bluster of guilty prelates, and even past the current attempts to mitigate its consequences. It may yet move so far that it brings out of Gregory whatever it was that made him challenge that teacher who talked to him about pickaninnies.

"While I don't think that anyone has the right to a firsthand tour of someone else's psyche," he muses, "one of the great challenges of the priesthood is that you do live as a public person. You may not have run for public office, and you may not have signed on for any kind of public disclosure, but people look up to you. One of the great sorrows of this crisis is that people who enjoyed such moments of great public esteem have violated that.

"I have my moments. I'm angry, because there are great priests who should not have to live under this cloud that their brother priests have brought down upon them."

He has a platform - albeit one that has been whittled away by 20 years of church politics and surreptitious ecclesiastical scheming - but a platform nonetheless, and the crisis has come upon Wilton Gregory like the weather does, all at once and from every direction that the wind can bring it down, from a cluster of satellite trucks in Boston to the roads that wind through the bean fields to the city of Belleville, where he could sense the crisis upon his arrival the way that you can smell spent lightning in the air. There's a fountain in the center of town and, when the weather comes down, the fountain throws its water skyward in pretty volleys bent by the wind. And the agnostic rain, which knows its business, hurls the water back to earth, where some good may come of it.

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