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GREGORY BISHOP 06152005.jpg

Bishop Wilton Gregory is shown in his Belleville office on Nov. 8, 2004.

WASHINGTON — The sight from the podium inside the headquarters of District of Columbia's Catholic Church on Thursday was striking: a black archbishop taking the helm — for the first time — of a major American diocese, a dramatic power shift resulting from two successive clergy sexual abuse scandals.

Wilton Gregory, 71, who is beginning an unexpected final act of his career at the behest of Pope Francis, choked back tears as he answered a question familiar to many Catholics today: Amid fresh scandal consuming the church, how have you kept your faith?

Gregory used to lead the Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

Gregory cited the priests and nuns who nurtured him, before he became Catholic, when he was just a child in Chicago in the late 1950s, fleeing a poor public school system.

"I've stayed because of the images and the witness of those men and women I first met," Gregory said, his voice catching as he responded to a reporter at the news conference. He said he thought of the same people in the early 2000s, when he was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the first clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States.

Good priests like those from his youth "should not have to die in shame," he said. "And I was going to do everything I could to make sure their reputations were protected, honored and respected."

With that display of emotion and an admission of the fragile state of the church, Gregory began to set a new tone at the top of the Catholic Church in Washington, one of the country's most politically important — and scandal-tainted — dioceses.

Gregory, who has been archbishop of Atlanta for 14 years, will be installed May 21, the Archdiocese of Washington said.

Gregory has been at the helm of some of the U.S. church's boldest moves on abuse, although he has not escaped criticism. While serving as president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference from 2001 to 2004, he was among the key figures who wrote a new charter for abuse prevention. The cornerstone of those guidelines is a "zero tolerance" policy for priests. But it neglected to improve oversight of bishops who did not report abuse. During that period, Gregory worked closely with McCarrick, then the archbishop of Washington.

In 2004, the diocese led by Gregory, in Belleville, Illinois, was found to be in contempt of court for its refusal to release the mental health records of a retired priest accused of abusing three children. Gregory had removed the priest from ministry nine years earlier, but the diocese fought the civil case brought by one of the victims.

In Atlanta, Gregory was in charge of an archdiocese with 1.2 million Catholics. He was born and raised in Chicago and was appointed to the Atlanta post by John Paul II.

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