Problems in Spokane Diocese Raise Questions about Succession Among American Bishops
By Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press, carried in Seattle Post-Intelligencer [Spokane WA]
November 11, 2004
SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Spokane Diocese's plan to file for bankruptcy by the end of the month could have implications for Roman Catholics far beyond Washington state.
Spokane Bishop William Skylstad is in line to become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it's unclear whether his troubles at home will affect his candidacy when the bishops gather to vote in Washington, D.C., next week.
The bishops' conference serves as the voice of the American church on social, religious and other issues. In the past few years, its current president - Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill. - has become a chief spokesman on the prelates' efforts to end sex abuse by clergy and restore trust in church leaders.
Skylstad, who announced the bankruptcy plan Wednesday, has served three years as conference vice president. In the past, every vice president who has sought the top job has won.
Skylstad has taken a high-profile role in changing the way the U.S. church deals with sexual abuse, including presenting some of the Americans' controversial reforms to the Vatican, but victims' groups complain that he is a poor choice to lead the bishops.
Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer and former spokesman for the bishops' conference, said church leaders may wonder if Skylstad can run his troubled diocese, while simultaneously leading the conference. "The two jobs are burdens in the best time of times but these are not the best of times," he said.
Michael Pfau, an attorney for several alleged victims suing the Spokane Diocese, said Skylstad "should resolve the problems in his backyard before he assumes the national post."
However, the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, cautioned that "it would be a real break with tradition if Skylstad didn't get it."
Skylstad, 70, has declined to comment on whether he will be elected president next week.
"I certainly don't want to comment on that," he said Wednesday. "I said I would give interviews after next Monday but, who knows, that's for others to decide, rather than me."
Skylstad is named in several lawsuits that accuse the Spokane Diocese of covering up molestation by some priests. Victim advocates say he has tried to bury past abuses under kind words and a public relations blitz.
Critics also argue that Skylstad, as a parish priest three decades ago, shared a rectory with another clergyman who already had a long record of molesting boys and did nothing to prevent instances of abuse.
"He's had a long and fairly abysmal record of not responding compassionately to victims or aggressively rooting out abuse," said David Clohessy, a national leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Clohessy said representatives of SNAP will be in Washington, D.C., to speak against Skylstad's election.
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 counseling.
He also has appeared at numerous meetings with parishioners and repeatedly apologized for the misdeeds of other priests.
"We cannot change history. But we can work to make sure history does not repeat itself," Skylstad said in a letter to parishioners earlier this year.
Skylstad was born in Omak, in rural north-central Washington. At 14 he left for a seminary in Ohio, and was ordained 12 years later. He served in the Spokane Diocese 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.
The chief criticism of Skylstad involves his handling of Patrick O'Donnell, a former priest and former housemate of Skylstad, who is the defendant in numerous lawsuits. Victims contend church leaders, including Skylstad, kept shuffling O'Donnell among different parishes even though they knew he was a 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.
"It is very clear that (Skylstad's) been right in the thick of the cover up," Clohessy said.
Skylstad has said that O'Donnell was given the treatment considered appropriate at the time - therapy. But he says he would handle the situation much differently now.
The diocese has estimated it spent more than $1.8 million in legal bills, public relations, settlements, counseling and other costs related to the 101 credible claims of abuse against 13 priests, five of whom are deceased, as of last February.
O'Donnell and one other priest are responsible for about two-thirds of the claims. None of the allegations is more recent than 1991 and the percentage of abusive priests in the Spokane Diocese is no higher than the national average.
But Skylstad has said the amount of damages being claimed against the diocese exceed its net worth.
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