Whom Will Skylstad Serve?

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times [Spokane WA]
November 21, 2004

The Most Rev. William Skylstad was on retreat in Copenhagen in 1989 when he was called home to Washington.

The then-bishop of Yakima soon found himself in a seedy tavern in Spokane. His assignment: to clean up the mess created by Lawrence Welsh, bishop of Spokane. Welsh had been arrested for drunken driving and was being investigated by police for behavior that, for a time, made him a low-level suspect in the Green River killings, according to recent court documents.

Skylstad found his fellow bishop behind a beer at the Wagon Wheel Tavern. He shipped Welsh off to alcohol treatment saying publicly that Welsh had "stomach problems."

A year later, Skylstad would replace Welsh as bishop of Spokane.

Now, Skylstad has been called to clean up an even bigger mess. As the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he has the job of reforming the church's response to accusations of sexual abuse by priests and restoring faith in the clergy. But he is a controversial choice. At a time when many Catholics want accountability, he is one of those who has a history of denying or dispatching problems that could hurt the church.

Skylstad bailed Welsh out. And he allegedly did nothing when a priest he supervised molested at least 30 boys some just a floor below his apartment in the rectory. The Rev. Patrick Gerald O'Donnell was eventually forced out of the ministry. He faces five lawsuits accusing him of molestation; the diocese is accused of neglect.

By all accounts, Skylstad is much respected by his fellow bishops and beloved by parishioners. I've found him a compassionate, thoughtful man.

But his history makes one wonder: Will his reputation as a team player make him an able reformer or unable to push back against the pope?

When parishioners complained to him about O'Donnell years ago, he apparently turned a deaf ear. A recent Seattle Times story noted that Skylstad would announce himself as he walked down to O'Donnell's quarters. ("It is just me, little old me.")

And when recently deposed about O'Donnell, Skylstad credited with a sharp memory went foggy: "I wish I could recall more clearly conversations and events that happened three decades ago."

Now those three decades have caught up to Skylstad. Earlier this month, he announced that Spokane would become the third diocese in the country to file for bankruptcy over clergy sex-abuse claims.

At the same time, Skylstad has been given a great opportunity: a chance to lead America's bishops out of a difficult time and onto an altar of honesty and self-examination.

But whom will Skylstad serve first: The Vatican? The people in the pews? Or God?

Whichever he chooses, his actions should be the same, informed by his own history in the eye of the storm, and guided by one of Christ's prime directives: Do unto others ...


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