Gregory, 71, the archbishop of Atlanta, is a moderate and the first African American to lead the Washington archdiocese. He replaces Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned last year after a Pennsylvania grand jury accused him of covering up the abuse.
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' progressive vision of the church.
"This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges throughout our entire Catholic Church, certainly, but nowhere more so than in this local faith community," Gregory said at a news conference in Washington, where he was introduced by Wuerl. "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."
Gregory's appointment was first reported by Catholic News Agency.
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 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 Theodore McCarrick — were implicated in the scandal.
Francis in February defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican-backed investigation concluded he sexually abused minors and adults over his long career. It was the first time a cardinal had been dismissed from the priesthood for abuse.
Francis reluctantly accepted Wuerl's resignation in October after he lost the trust of his priests and parishioners in the months following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The report accused Wuerl of helping to protect some child-molesting priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. Simultaneously, Wuerl faced widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about McCarrick's misconduct, which was an open secret in U.S. and Vatican circles.
Gregory has responded by expressing his own anger, shame and disillusionment at the failures of the hierarchy. In an August statement after McCarrick resigned as a cardinal, he acknowledged his own respect for McCarrick had been "clearly misplaced."
"We've certainly given our faithful a lot of reasons to leave the church. I want to provide a few reasons to stay. I want to assure the people that I will be honest with them, that I will govern with sensitivity, that I will be approachable, available. I'm an ordinary human being," Gregory said Thursday. "I have to tell you the truth, and I will."
Gregory is credited for his leadership of the U.S. church during a moment of crisis, when as president of the U.S. bishops conference he persuaded church leaders to adopt toughened penalties for abusers in 2002.
That said, the reform Gregory shepherded through explicitly excluded bishops from the "zero-tolerance" policy — a loophole that became evident with the McCarrick scandal. U.S. bishops are expected to address the gap at their upcoming meeting, where all eyes will likely be on Gregory.
Gregory's appointment was greeted with praise by the Rev. James Martin, who was invited last year by Gregory to give a talk in Atlanta on how the church should better minister to the LGBT community. The initiative drew criticism from some conservatives who accused Gregory of not upholding church teaching on homosexuality.
In a statement, Martin said Gregory was a "superb choice" for Washington given his leadership on the abuse crisis and because he is "someone who knows how to reach out to marginalized populations."
Wuerl, too, praised the choice. "I join everyone who appreciates his pastoral abilities, his intellectual gifts and his leadership qualities," Wuerl said in introducing him Thursday.
Gregory will be installed May 20 as the seventh archbishop of Washington, serving a community of around 659,000 Roman Catholics.
In Atlanta, Gregory was embroiled briefly in a scandal of his own in 2014 after the archdiocese used $2.2 million in donations to buy and renovate a swank new home for the archbishop. The mansion was later sold, and Gregory apologized following an outcry from parishioners.
A native of Chicago, Gregory is a protege of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who consecrated him as a bishop in 1983. Gregory was bishop of Belleville, Illinois, from 1994 until his installation in Atlanta in 2005.
Winfield reported from Vatican City.