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Atlanta gains black archbishop

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Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets children at Mass of Canonical Installation. He's first black leader of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory greets children at Mass of Canonical Installation. He’s first black leader of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

John Spink, Associated Press

COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — On the same day the nation honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the first black leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was installed Monday as archbishop in King's native city.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, a Chicago native, became Atlanta's sixth archbishop and its third black archbishop.

Gregory, 57, said he chose the King holiday for his installation as a tribute to the slain civil rights leader. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was on hand for the ceremony.

"We gather in prayer and festive joy on Dr. King's memorial day and in a city that holds a special place among all American cities that reverence this great man's legacy," Gregory told the crowd of about 8,000 at the Georgia International Convention Center, located in College Park, a suburb just south of the city.

He smiled and nodded in appreciation as the mostly Catholic crowd applauded thunderously.

After a 30-minute processional of congratulation, Gregory addressed his flock for the first time. Speaking first in Spanish, he said he was eager to work among a diverse population.

"I want you to know that you are always close to the heart of this local church and to the heart of its new archbishop," he told Latinos.

Gregory was the first black president of the bishops conference when he was elected in November 2001. At the time, his election was seen by black Catholics nationwide as long-awaited recognition of their presence in the church.

But the clergy sex abuse scandal quickly eclipsed Gregory's historic elevation. Gregory led the bishops conference in reaching a binding policy that includes barring offenders from church work and creation of a national lay watchdog panel for enforcement.

"Had I been able to script my presidency, I would certainly not have given myself this particular drama to live," Gregory told The Associated Press last year. "But I was able to do something to strengthen and to help the church I love."

Before coming to Atlanta, Gregory served as bishop in Belleville, Ill. He left the diocese in rural southern Illinois to become head of an archdiocese with 98 parishes and missions that has doubled in size since 1990 to more than 370,000 members.

Gregory succeeded Archbishop John F. Donoghue, who retired.