- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

The bishop of Spokane, Wash., was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday, despite his intent to declare his diocese bankrupt in the next few weeks.

Conference Vice President Bishop William Skylstad, 70, squeaked by nine other candidates on the first ballot with 52 percent of the vote from 252 bishops during the meeting at the Capitol Hyatt Regency.

Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George was elected vice president of the conference on the fourth ballot, defeating Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl by six votes. Because the vice president traditionally succeeds the president, the contest or that slot was more competitive.

“I am deeply honored and humbled by this election this morning,” Bishop Skylstad told the conference. “I have no doubt the days ahead will continue to be days of both blessings and challenges for all of us. … We together can look forward to the future with hope and joy.”

However, some Catholic groups say they urged bishops against awarding the presidency to Bishop Skylstad, who recently announced plans to file for Chapter 11 protection by Dec. 6, effectively stopping in its tracks the first of 19 abuse lawsuits to come to trial in the diocese.

The Spokane diocese will become the third Catholic diocese in the country, after Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., to declare bankruptcy to protect itself from being wiped out by sexual-abuse lawsuits that have consumed the American church since early 2002.

“It does seem curious that churches never want the civil government to be involved with them until now, when they’re walking into the courthouses and declaring bankruptcy,” said Kristine Ward, vice president of the Boston-based Voice of the Faithful.

“It’s inconceivable the Roman Catholic Church anywhere would declare bankruptcy. Why don’t they go to friendly bankers?”

The Spokane diocese has paid out $280,203 in legal claims in the past five years. However, many more millions of dollars may have to be paid out for the 19 pending lawsuits.

“We don’t think any bishop threatening bankruptcy should aspire to higher office,” said David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Bishop Skylstad has done nothing to distinguish himself on the abuse issue and for years he lived with one of the most notorious priestly abusers in the Northwest.”

That priest was the Rev. Patrick O’Donnell Jr., who is the target of at least five lawsuits accusing him of molestation, and his boss and housemate, Bishop Skylstad, of neglect. Of the 58 plaintiffs involved in the 19 lawsuits, 28 of them say they are victims of Father O’Donnell. The priest has admitted to multiple molestations.

The two men shared a rectory from 1974 to 1976, when Bishop Skylstad was the pastor and Father O’Donnell was his assistant. Although the priest has said he abused several boys in that same rectory, Bishop Skylstad repeatedly has said during court depositions and in written statements that he does not recall details from three decades ago.

In other business yesterday:

• Kathleen McChesney, director of the convention’s Office for Child and Youth Protection, announced plans to resign by Feb. 25 at the end of her two-year term. Her deputy, Sheila Horan, is leaving in December.

“I still have plenty of energy left, but I believe I have done what I was given to do,” Mrs. McChesney said.

• The bishops dropped plans for a plenary council of bishops first broached in 2002 by eight bishops concerned by the sexual-abuse crisis. The idea was dropped this year because of lack of interest, Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein told the gathering.

He suggested that bishops hold special assemblies in 2006 and 2007 during their June meetings, which are structured more like retreats than their November business meetings.

• In a series of 12 votes, bishops said the Eucharist and sacraments were highest on their list for prayer and reflection, followed by sessions on evangelism and catechesis and the priesthood and religious life. An overwhelming majority — 193 bishops — also voted to continue to shut out the press from their June deliberations.

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