U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Elects New Head

At the wake of the bitter clergy sex-scandal that forced three dioceses to file bankruptcy and largely marred the ‘holy’ reputation of the Roman Catholic Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops elected their new president to lead the church through the slew of litigations and multi-million dollar settlements due next year.

The Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, was elected overwhelmingly from among 10 candidates to succeed Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, on Monday, November 15, 2004.

Meanwhile, Gregory, in his last address as president, apologized “for the mistakes and missteps that I have made” as he led the church at the height of the sex-abuse crisis.

"I hope that you and the members of the church that I love so deeply have been able to forgive me for those," he said, without further specification. "I also hope that I am a better bishop for having accepted your fraternal correction and for having, with your assistance, recognized how I could have done better."

He also urged his fellow bishops to resolve the internal differences that emerged during the scandal.

"A strengthened sense of collegiality among ourselves can only redound to the common good of the church in the United States which we tend and love," he said as he opened the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It will also serve as a very important witness to our beloved nation of how religious and civil discourse can and must take place."

Under Gregory, the Catholic Church adopted a one-strike policy that removed any priest found guilty of sexual molestation charges from priesthood. The policy was at the height of the scandal when victims complained of bishops protecting abusive priests by moving them to difference dioceses when charged. The church also developed a national lay watchdog panel to help oversee the policy.

Skylstad, who served as vice president during Gregory’s 3-year term, was largely criticized by lay abuse-victim groups because of his diocese’s plan to seek bankruptcy protection from the millions of dollars in sex-abuse claims. Some of the bishops also wondered if Skystad would be able to effectively lead the conference when his own diocese was undergoing such severe financial difficulties.

However, according to the Associated Press, Skystad explained last week that nearly all the alleged abuse in his Spokane Diocese occurred before his election as bishop in 1990. He also publicly released the names of the abusers, cooperated with law enforcement, and apologized for the misdeeds of the priests.

Skylstad ultimately received an overwhelming 52% of the presidency vote, trampling over the nine other candidates.

Skylstad was born in Omak in rural north-central Washington. He left for a seminary in Ohio at 14, and was ordained 12 years later. He was bishop of the Yakima Diocese in 1977, and in 1990, became bishop of Spokane.

Currently, two dioceses - Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have declared bankruptcy. Spokane will be the third should it file at month’s end as announced.