Wilton D. Gregory has been blazing trails in the Catholic church for nearly 20 years.
In the early 1980s, at age 36, he became the youngest Catholic bishop in the country.
But over the past six months, Gregory has earned the respect and appreciation of his peers for leading the U.S. church through a sexual abuse crisis that even he acknowledged yesterday was "perhaps the gravest we have faced."
Candid and forthright, Gregory delivered what must be the toughest address ever by a bishops' conference president, telling his brother bishops yesterday about how the world and the faithful perceive their culpability in the scandal that has rocked the church.
The speech was all the more astonishing when one considers that Gregory leads the diocese of Belleville, Ill., which encompasses a mostly rural area in southern Illinois.
"He was very gutsy, getting up there and addressing the bishops like that," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly.
It's all the more impressive, he said, because Gregory does not occupy the most prestigious of church offices.
"He's not a cardinal. He's not even an archbishop," Reese said.
Gregory gets high marks for his handling of the crisis from both ends of the spectrum.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of the conservative journal, First Things, said he was unimpressed at first with Gregory.
"I think the general perception of Bishop Gregory before this is he was pretty much a company man, go by the playbook," Neuhaus said. He and others initially dismissed Gregory's election to lead the bishops as little more than "a very nice affirmative action touch."
"But I would say in the last few months, he's demonstrated he's among the most clear-thinking and plain-spoken and in some respects courageous of bishops," he said.
David Clohessy, national director for the Survivor's Network for those Abused by Priests, said that Gregory promptly removed priests accused of abuse shortly after he was appointed bishop of Belleville in 1994.
"When he [acted], he did so quickly and he did so publicly," Clohessy said. "That puts him head and shoulders above his colleagues as far as we're concerned."
Gregory has a disarming and engaging style even toward his critics. He recalled yesterday, before introducing Clohessy to the meeting of bishops, that he first heard of the activist nearly a decade ago because Clohessy was always quoted in every newspaper article on sexual abuse, countering whatever he had said.
Gregory called Clohessy, who had been abused by a priest as a child, and invited him for a meeting at a time when most bishops shunned his advocacy group.
Gregory, 54, was born on Chicago's South Side to a family that was nominally Protestant. But his parents recognized the value of a Catholic education and enrolled him at the local parish school.
He was entranced by the two priests there, and in the sixth grade, he was baptized a Catholic. He said it was just weeks later that he decided he wanted to be a priest like his role models.
He attended seminary from high school through college and was ordained in 1973. His talent was recognized early, and he was sent to Rome for higher studies. He returned to Chicago, where he taught in the seminary before becoming a bishop in 1983.
Some suggest Gregory's forthrightness on the sexual abuse scandal should mark him for further advancement in the church leadership.
"If Cardinal [Bernard] Law ever did resign, he'd be a natural for Boston," said Reese, referring to the embattled leader of the diocese where the scandal first erupted.
Gregory would "have instant credibility there to clean up the situation," he said. "And that's what they're going to need."