The Bishops' New President

St. Petersburg Times [United States]
November 27, 2004

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane was elected this month to a three-year term as president of the U.S. Catholic bishops conference, the nearest thing to a governing board for the autonomous bishops. Skylstad has much on his plate, from instituting new child-protection measures to saving cash-strapped churches from insolvency. He will also need to move the bishops into the 21st century.

Prejudging Skylstad is unfair, even though the bishop announced this month that his diocese would seek bankruptcy protection in the face of civil lawsuits over alleged clergy sex abuse. As the bishops' vice president since 2001, Skylstad followed the usual rotation into power. He worked closely with his predecessor, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., on the child protection protocols the bishops adopted in Dallas in 2002, after sex abuse allegations began to engulf dioceses around the country. Skylstad is credited with making the names of alleged molesters public and with dealing openly with parishioners and victims.

His ability to repair the church's image will be tested quickly. Gregory fumbled at times and displayed a tendency to overstate both the church's shock at the revelations and its record in coming clean and addressing the problem. In fairness, Gregory was caught between a pope who has never seemed to grasp the damage the scandal has caused in this country and individual bishops who are unwilling to concede any oversight responsibility.

Gregory did recognize the immense impact the scandal had outside the church. His willingness to be a public face served the bishops well by drawing attention away from the hierarchy's insular ways. Skylstad should remain similarly visible as the bishops undertake the next phase of the Dallas reforms, studying how such systemic abuse was allowed to happen. Addressing the problem will be tricky, because Skylstad will need to confront the very institution that elected him.


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