updated 11/15/2004 3:42:51 PM ET 2004-11-15T20:42:51

America’s Roman Catholic bishops chose a new president Monday who has released the names of priests accused of molesting children and reached out to victims but who also plans to seek bankruptcy protection for his diocese because of abuse claims.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., was elected conference president by his fellow bishops Monday on the first ballot, just days after announcing his diocese will go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Skylstad, who has served as conference vice president for the past three years, received 120 votes, or 52 percent of the total in a field of 10 candidates. Every vice president who has sought the top job has won.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George was elected vice president for the next three-year term, which begins for both men at the end of this week.

Named in lawsuits
Advocates for victims have accused Skylstad of using bankruptcy to help his diocese avoid responsibility for mishandling abuse claims against priests. He is named in several lawsuits that accuse the Spokane Diocese of covering up molestation.

However, Skylstad insisted last week that the amount of damages being sought in lawsuits exceeded the diocese’s net worth. By month’s end, he said, Spokane will become the third U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy.

A conference spokesman said Skylstad would not comment until later this week when the bishops wrap up their meeting. Skylstad succeeds Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who led the conference for three years during the height of the molestation crisis.

As vice president, Skylstad was at the center of the bishops’ efforts to restore credibility to their leadership.

He helped Gregory represent the conference to the Vatican and he attended an emergency summit Pope John Paul II called with U.S. church leaders in April 2002, when the scandal was spreading to every American diocese.

Now, as president, Skylstad will become the bishops’ chief spokesman on their efforts to protect children, among other duties.

Asked if Catholics would trust Skylstad in that role, considering the problems in his own dioceses, George said Skylstad was deeply committed to the abuse prevention plan the bishops adopted in June 2002 in Dallas.

That policy, which is now under review and may be revised, bars offenders from church work and creates a national lay watchdog panel to help monitor compliance.

“I think Bishop Skylstad has shown himself quite interested in and committed to keeping the promises of Dallas,” George said in a brief interview. “I think Bishop Skylstad is as dedicated to keeping these promises as anyone else.”

Victims' group not happy
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, came to Washington to protest Skylstad’s candidacy and called his election “disturbing.”

“It feels as though bishops want to continue pretending everything is fixed,” Clohessy said. “To elect someone else would have been a sign that they cared about victims.”

Skylstad has argued that nearly all the alleged abuse in the Spokane Diocese occurred before he became bishop in 1990. He has publicly released the names of alleged abusers, called on all victims to come forward, cooperated with law enforcement and offered to pay for victims’ counseling..

He also has appeared at numerous meetings with parishioners and repeatedly apologized for the misdeeds of other priests.

The chief criticism of Skylstad involves his handling of Patrick O’Donnell, a former priest and Skylstad’s former housemate. Victims contend church leaders, including Skylstad, shuffled O’Donnell among different parishes even though they knew he was a serial molester.

O’Donnell has admitted in court records to molesting at least three children in the rectory at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Spokane, where he was an assistant and Skylstad was pastor in the 1970s.

Skylstad, 70, was born in Omak, in rural north-central Washington. He began his career as a priest in the Spokane Diocese, serving until 1977 when he became bishop of the neighboring Yakima Diocese. In 1990 he was named Spokane bishop, leading a flock of about 90,000 people in 83 parishes.

Gregory opened the bishops’ meeting with his final presidential address, apologizing for any mistakes he made over the past three years and urging his fellow prelates to resolve internal differences that have 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. “It will also serve as a very important witness to our beloved nation of how religious and civil discourse can and must take place.”

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