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Spotlight Report

  Wilton Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens to a reporter's question in April after the prelate's return from the Vatican. (AP Photo)

The bishop's quandary

Prelate Wilton Gregory is more identified with reform than anyone else at the top of America's Catholic hierarchy. The question is how - and if - this prudent insider will use his power to buck the system.

By Charles P. Pierce, Globe Staff, 7/21/2002

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his 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.

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