Pope Francis has named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the new head of the Catholic Church in Washington DC.

The previous two holders of the post were caught up in sexual abuse scandals.

Archbishop Gregory, 71, becomes the first African-American to head the most influential position in the U.S. Church, and as such is likely to be made a cardinal eligible to vote in a conclave to elect the next pope after Francis dies or resigns.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned as archbishop of the US capital last October after 12 years in the job following a grand jury report that criticised him for failing to halt abuse in his previous role as archbishop of Pittsburgh.

Wuerl's predecessor, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was expelled from the priesthood earlier this year after he was found guilty of sexual crimes against minors and adults.

The Washington position is the most important and visible for the Church in the United States because of its proximity to national political power.

Archbishop Gregory was born in Chicago and raised in the city's poor South Side.

As president of the US bishops conference between 2001 and 2004, he pushed through a new charter to protect children after the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.