Chicago Cardinal to Lead U.S. Bishops

By Daniel Burke
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
November 14, 2007

BALTIMORE — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as its next president Tuesday, choosing a Vatican veteran to lead it through deep cuts in staff and mission.

George, elected by 85 percent of the bishops meeting in Baltimore this week, is known for his incisive mind and occasionally sharp tongue.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, left, reacts to being named president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops alongside the outgoing president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., on Tuesday.
Photo by Steve Ruark

As president of the conference for the next three years, George, 70, will be the American church's chief spokesman and its primary channel to Rome.

"I would characterize my leadership more as one of discernment than of being visionary. ... I'm the president of the conference, not the bishop of the United States," he said, adding that, in some sense, it's a "symbolic post."

George succeeds Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., whose term ends this year. Because the Chicago prelate had served as vice president of the conference for the last three years, his election was widely expected.

Two Catholic lay groups, however, pressed the bishops not to elect George, saying he had mishandled sexual abuse claims against Chicago clergy.

Ahead of the Baltimore meeting, the lay group Voice of the Faithful sent letters to nearly 300 U.S. bishops, including George, urging them to reject the cardinal's candidacy.

Protesting outside the meeting, representatives from Voice of the Faithful and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the cardinal's moral leadership is in doubt.

"George is the last person the bishops should be electing as their president," said Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful.

The cardinal neglected to remove a priest, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, from ministry in 2005 even after the archdiocese was told that he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children, the groups say.

Last year, McCormack pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five boys ages 8 to 12. George has admitted that he erred in his handling the case.

The conference elected Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., as vice president.

The conference's influence and reach are waning, observers say. Deep cuts in budget and staff, partly as a result of a sex abuse scandal that has cost the American church about $2 billion since 1950, may reduce its role in public life.

Moreover, the bishops have less appetite for sweeping statements on issues such as economic justice compared with the heyday of the conference in the 1970s and '80s, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington.

This week, the bishops are expected to approve an outline of Catholics' political responsibilities and a revision of the guideline for music at Mass.


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