US Bishops Elect New Chief after Sex Scandal

IOL [Washington DC]
November 16, 2004

Washington - United States Catholic bishops, facing the financial aftermath of a pervasive child sex abuse scandal, elected a president on Monday whose diocese plans to seek bankruptcy protection from dozens of alleged victims.

The new leader, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, is the first president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops chosen since the sex scandal surfaced more than two years ago. He follows Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, whose three-year term ends this week.

Gregory told the opening session of a four-day bishops' meeting in Washington that the clergy sex abuse scandal, which first became widely reported in 2002, remained a central challenge for the US Catholic church.

Calling it "the greatest scandal that the church in the United States perhaps has ever confronted," he said the bishops were committed to a review of policies for dealing with this kind of abuse and its aftermath.

'The greatest scandal that the church in the United States perhaps has ever confronted'

"The successful completion of this work by June of next year is paramount for the preserving of our promise to protect children in the church and for our pledge to continue the healing and reconciliation of victims of this terrible crime," Gregory said.

Skylstad's diocese announced the past week that it planned to file for bankruptcy by the end of November to shield itself from lawsuits seeking tens of millions of dollars for alleged clerical sexual abuse.

Skylstad was not available to comment on this at the meeting on Monday, but said in a statement last week that all claims against his diocese would be treated "equally, fairly, with justice."

He referred to the scandal in a formal statement to the bishops.

Speaking of Christ's challenge to the apostles to unite the church, Skylstad said, "This challenge takes a special form today in the healing and reconciliation of those who have been harmed by sexual abuse and providing a safe environment in our ministry for youth and children."

'Providing a safe environment in our ministry for youth and children'

The Spokane diocese is the third so far in 2004 to announce bankruptcy filings; the others are Tucson, Arizona, and Portland, Oregon.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson parried a question about whether the expected bankruptcy in Skylstad's diocese might have had any bearing on his election as president, saying Skylstad was elected because of his "competence and readiness to serve the conference."

But Kicanas added at a news briefing, "With regard to filing for Chapter 11 (bankruptcy), I think every bishop wants to resolve the hurt that has happened and to do that in the most effective way possible.

"The difficulty with litigation is that it's a first-come-first-served system and therefore victims who may come forward later have less access to compensation," Kicanas said.

Under Chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy code, he said, "all who have been harmed can be fairly and equitably compensated and responded to."

The sex scandal first surfaced in Boston in January 2002. It ultimately led to the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and sparked investigations that showed the problem was present in dioceses across the United States.

The US bishops approved a charter to deal with priest sexual abuse two years ago, but critics question whether they have acted on it.

David Clohessy, of the victims group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a telephone interview before the bishops meeting began, "There's still far more lip service and public relations than genuine reform."


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