Landslide Skylstad; Vice President George; Liturgy Surprise

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington DC]
November 17, 2004

Election to a three-year-term as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the holder of that post the heir apparent. Only twice in its history has the conference bypassed a sitting vice president in choosing its leader, and only then because the bishops in question were either approaching mandatory retirement age or suffered severe ill-health.

It was with that formidable history on his side that Spokane, Wash., Bishop William Skylstad, vice president of the bishops' conference for the past three tumultuous years, stood for election Nov. 15 at the bishops' annual meeting. Tradition, and thus Skylstad, won out, but not without some election intrigue that made this an actual contest and not a coronation.

In many ways, the 70-year-old Skylstad is the prototypical bishops' conference president. As a body, the bishops' prefer consensus-builders over bomb-throwers to lead what Jesuit Father Thomas Reese's memorably termed "the flock of shepherds." Previous conference presidents have included, for example, bishops Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, William Keeler of Baltimore, Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, John May of St. Louis and James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio. Workhorses all.

Under those criteria, Skylstad seemed a gift from central casting. A bishop since 1977, he has done his time in the conference trenches. He served as chair of the committees on the permanent diaconate, social development and world peace, and the ad hoc committee on bishops' life and ministry. As conference vice president for the last three years he was a key part of the leadership team that developed the bishops' response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Personally, Skylstad exudes moderation. Well spoken, but not glib, fervent but not fanatical, serious but not imperious. Yet hanging over Skylstad's candidacy were three issues that threatened his bid.

First, would his role as conference vice president at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal hurt or help? As conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory had forced through a not-universally applauded response to the crisis - adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a one-strike-and-you're out policy for priest-abusers, creation of the lay-run National Review Board, and an implementation program that included annual audits of diocesan child-protection programs. Would bishops' dissatisfied with that response take it out on Skylstad?

Next, would those bishops who were so vocal in their opposition to John Kerry's presidential candidacy feel emboldened by the election results and try to assert leadership in the conference? Skylstad, true to form, took a moderate approach during the Kerry-communion controversy, reiterating the priority the church gives to life issues but refusing to endorse calls to deny the Eucharist to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Finally, like so many of his brethren, Skylstad is compromised by the clergy sex abuse scandal. Just prior to arriving at the Washington meeting, Skylstad said that his diocese of Spokane would soon be the third in the nation to seek federal bankruptcy protection to cope with potentially crippling claims from clergy abuse victims. Further, three decades ago, Skylstad was pastor of a parish where one of the most notorious abusers, Fr. Patrick O'Donnell, served as an associate. In court depositions related to the case, Skylstad repeatedly said that he does not remember or cannot recall many of the circumstances surrounding the abuse committed in the rectory he supervised.

With 120 votes (52 percent), Skylstad won a first ballot victory over nine opponents. (If he had received less than 50 percent of the vote, additional ballots would have been necessary.) Chicago Cardinal Francis George was second in the balloting with 53 votes, Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl third with 18 votes, and Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali fourth with 15 votes. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leader among those bishops who challenged pro-choice Catholic politicians in the recent election, received just five votes.

At his inaugural press conference as president Nov. 17, Skylstad said his relatively slim margin of victory resulted, perhaps, from the "unusual" and "complex times" faced by the U.S. church today. He urged continued "dialogue" with pro-choice Catholic politicians, said he disclosed Spokane's impending bankruptcy because he wanted the bishops to be aware of it prior to their vote, and acknowledged that balancing the demands of a troubled diocese with his new leadership post will create "tension."


The real race, as it turned out, was for the heir apparent.

Under the conference election rules, once a president is elected, the nine remaining bishops form the pool from which the vice president is chosen. The winner must secure at least 50 percent of the vote.

It was a squeaker.

On the first ballot, George secured 83 votes to Wuerl's 66 votes. Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas received 21 votes, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan 17 votes, Rigali and San Francisco Archbishop William Levada 15 votes, Rapid City Bishop Blase Cupich five, Chaput six, and Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein four.

On the second ballot, Wuerl increased his vote by 29, though he still trailed George by 13 votes, 108-95. On the third and final ballot, the race was down to two, George edged out Wuerl by a vote of 118-112.

George is the first sitting cardinal elected to one of the conference's top leadership posts since St. Louis Cardinal John Carberry served as vice president in the mid-1970s.

The bishops also elected various committee chairs. Among them: canonical affairs (Newark Archbishop John Myers), catechesis (Wuerl), ecumenical and interreligious affairs (Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba), marriage and family life (Knoxville Bishop Joseph Kurtz), and international policy (Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski).

Perhaps the most interesting race, however, was to chair the bishops' liturgy committee, a post that has seen its share of controversy over the past decade. George was the outgoing head of the committee. The committee will play a key role in developing the U.S. bishops' position on issues to be discussed at the October 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, to be held in Rome.

Two conservative prelates -Rigali and Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron - were presented by the nominating committee to the body of bishops. But from the floor, the name of Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman was placed in nomination. Trautman, a previous chairman of the committee, had made his share of enemies in the liturgy wars, but also, it seems, his share of friends among the bishops.

On the first ballot, Trautman secured 115 votes to Rigali's 90 and Vigneron's 32. A second ballot put Trautman over the 50 percent threshold with 127 votes to Rigali's 105 and Vigneron's seven.

"That's only the second time in my years as a bishop that I've seen a nomination from the floor win a chairmanship," said one veteran bishop.


A full report on the Nov. 15-17 Bishops Conference meeting can be found in the Nov. 26 issue of National Catholic Reporter.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.