Sex Abuse Scandal Hangs over US Bishops' Choice of New Leader

Reuters, carried in [Washington DC]
November 14, 2004

WASHINGTON --The priest sex abuse scandal that shook the U.S. Roman Catholic church to its foundations two years ago could turn out to be a key issue as America's bishops gather to choose new leaders this week.

Victims of clerical sexual abuse are campaigning against the front-runner for next president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, saying he is unwilling to address the issue.

Skylstad's diocese announced just days ago it planned to declare bankruptcy to shield itself from lawsuits launched by those who say priests abused them.

One victims' group, Survivors Network of those abused by Priests, known as SNAP, took the symbolic step of endorsing an alternate candidate for the top job, Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota.

"We don't know as much about him as we'd like," said David Clohessy, SNAP's national director . "But in an odd sort of way, that's a good thing," indicating that Cupich had not been tarnished by the scandal.

Cupich and Skylstad are on the 10-person slate of presidential candidates offered by the bishops conference. As the current vice president, Skylstad is seen as the leading contender.

Clohessy accused Skylstad of covering up abuse. But a lawyer for the diocese said the bankruptcy filing in Skylstad's diocese by November's end was the only way to handle dozens of suits seeking tens of millions of dollars, brought against a handful of priests who worked for the church over the past 50 years.

In a statement last week, Skylstad said all claims would be treated "equally, fairly, with justice."

Spokane is the third U.S. diocese to announce a bankruptcy filing this year in the wake of sex scandals; the others are Portland, Oregon, and Tucson, Arizona.

"I think the biggest uncertainty right now is who's going to be president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- can Bishop Skylstad be successful in being elected?" said Jim Post, who heads the Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful. "It's not about the other contenders; it's whether he's going to succeed."

This is the first time the bishops have chosen new leadership since the priest sexual abuse scandal surfaced in January 2002, with reports of widespread abuse in Boston. The current president is Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois.

Post's group formed two years ago in response to the scandal, which prompted the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and sparked investigations that showed the problem was present in dioceses across the United States.

The U.S. bishops approved a charter to deal with priest sexual abuse in November 2002, but critics question whether they have acted on it.

"There's still far more lip service and public relations than genuine reform," Clohessy said in a telephone interview on Friday. "They (the bishops) continue to focus on the 'bad apple' priests and not on the real problem: their own complicity and cover-up."

Post said there have been persistent questions about whether Skylstad knew about the sexual abuse in his diocese and failed to act to protect potential victims there.

The bishops conference, which runs from Monday through Thursday in Washington, lists the problem of priestly sexual abuse on its agenda, among other issues ranging from marriage to a catechism for adults.

There is a proposal for annual collection of data and reporting of new cases of sexual abuse of minors, resolution of ongoing cases and associated costs.

Both SNAP and Voice of the Faithful plan events in Washington pegged to the bishops meeting. The lay group scheduled a Sunday symposium on the problem entitled "Are the Wounds Healing?" while SNAP planned a "sidewalk news conference" to voice objections to bankruptcy threats by church prelates and discuss candidates for the bishops' presidency.


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