BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- A week before his term expires as leader of the nation's Roman Catholic hierarchy, Bishop Wilton Gregory said that the pressure of guiding the US church through the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis ''drove me to my knees" spiritually.
Yet in an interview yesterday, Gregory said he was grateful for the chance to serve during what many contend is the worst tragedy ever to befall the Catholic Church in America.
''Had I been able to script my presidency, I would certainly not have given myself this particular drama to live," Gregory said, speaking at his office in the Diocese of Belleville. ''But I was able to do something to strengthen and to help the church I love."
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops will elect a president next week during its regular meeting in Washington, and Gregory, who has completed his three-year term, will be relieved of answering for the misdeeds of priests and the misjudgments of his fellow bishops.
''From a spiritual point of view, it drove me to my knees," Gregory said. ''I used the sacramental life of the church to buttress me. Celebrating Eucharist and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation probably have never meant more to me as a believer than they did in the past three years. As I stood at the altar, I knew how completely I depended upon God's strength."
Expectations for Gregory were high when he took office in November 2001. He was the first black president of the conference, and his election was seen by black Catholics as the long-awaited recognition of their membership in the church. Diana Hayes, a black Catholic and theologian at Georgetown University, compared it to ''having an African-American president of the United States."
But scandal soon eclipsed his historic elevation to leadership.
What started in January 2002 as a crisis over one molester priest in the Archdiocese of Boston quickly enveloped the entire church. Gregory, from his small, rural diocese in southern Illinois, had to defend a Catholic hierarchy to an increasingly hostile laity and general public. A few months later, when the bishops gathered in Dallas under intense public pressure to address the crisis, it fell to Gregory to apologize to victims and acknowledge the failures of church leaders.
He led the bishops through nothing short of a revolution in their approach to abuse. They now have a binding policy on how to respond to allegations that includes barring offenders from church work and a national lay watchdog panel to help enforce the plan.
But in the transition, Gregory has been caught among warring factions: victims who say the policy is too weak and bishops who consider it draconian, lay people seeking more say in how dioceses are governed and conservatives demanding that bishops reassert their authority over the church.
Gregory said bishops spent months discussing how to build on the safeguards that many had already put in place in their own dioceses.
He declined to discuss the private talks among bishops in their June 2002 meeting in Dallas where, despite some resistance, they agreed to prohibit guilty priests from public ministry. But he said he was confident that the policy was the right one, and he contended that it should stay in place as church leaders review it over the next several months.
''I know that there are some who caution us, who say, 'What if this occurred so long ago and he's been faithful and he's been truly repentant?' I believe that we must err on the side of the safety of children and we must reassure our people that no one in public ministry has this in their background," the bishop said.
Some of the backlash from the crisis has been directed at Gregory himself.
''Based on any one event or one decision there were people who would say, 'I wouldn't have done it that way,' but I also know they realized this was unprecedented," Gregory said.
Gregory said he was aware that many victims believe that bishops have failed to do enough to make amends and ensure that no child is hurt again by a priest.
''We're dealing with people who have been hurt, and out of their pain is a level of mistrust," he said.
''I'm not surprised that we haven't been given the full credit for what's been done."