VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis on Thursday named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington D.C., choosing a moderate, and the first African-American, to lead the archdiocese that has become the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the U.S.
Gregory, 71, replaces Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned last year after being implicated in covering up abuse by a Pennsylvania grand jury report.
Gregory headed the U.S. bishops conference when it adopted a "zero-tolerance" abuse policy in 2002 to respond to the first wave of the scandal. He has run the Atlanta archdiocese since 2005 and is seen as a pastor very much in line with Francis' vision of the church.
"This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges throughout our entire Catholic Church, certainly, but nowhere more so that in this local faith community," Gregory said at a Thursday press conference. "And as in any family, challenges can only be overcome by a firmly articulated resolve and commitment to do better, to know Christ better to love Christ better, to serve Christ better. I would be naive not to acknowledge the unique task that awaits us."
It is the third major move by Francis to reshape the U.S. hierarchy, which over the previous two papacies took on a conservative tilt. Francis began elevating more moderate pastors in 2014, when he named Cardinal Blase Cupich as Chicago archbishop and followed up two years later by moving Joseph Tobin to Newark, New Jersey, and making him a cardinal.
While relatively small, the Washington archdiocese has always punched above its weight in influence given its location in the nation's capital. Its archbishops traditionally are made cardinals, meaning Gregory could become the first African-American cardinal.
The archdiocese, though, has become embroiled in the abuse crisis since its previous two leaders -- Wuerl and his predecessor Theodore McCarrick -- have been implicated in the scandal.
Gregory will be installed May 20 as the seventh archbishop of Washington, serving a community of around 659,000 Catholics.