Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who plans to declare his diocese in bankruptcy because of sexual abuse claims, was elected yesterday as the next president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At the same time, Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI agent who established the bishops' Office of Child Protection, announced that she will step down in February.
The developments came as the bishops began their semiannual meeting in Washington and showed they are still grappling with the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church nearly three years after it erupted in Boston and a year after their outgoing president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., proclaimed that they had "turned the corner" on the scandal.
Because Skylstad, 70, had served as the bishops' vice president since 2001, he ordinarily would have been a shoo-in for the presidency. But the election became unusually competitive after he announced last week that the Spokane diocese would file by the end of the month for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.
Voting with electronic keypads in the ballroom of a Capitol Hill hotel, the bishops chose Skylstad from a field of 10 contenders with 52 percent of the vote. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago narrowly defeated Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh for vice president, putting George in line to head the conference in 2007.
To some bishops, Skylstad's predicament in Spokane might even be a plus, because it focuses attention on the shaky finances of many small dioceses, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly magazine America.
"Bankruptcy may be the future of the Catholic Church," he said. "Over the next decade we could get five, 10, 20 dioceses that have to declare bankruptcy in order to clear the decks of these suits."
Spokane would be the third U.S. diocese to file for Chapter 11, after the dioceses of Portland, Ore., and Tucson. In all three cases, the filing came just as the diocese was about to face a civil trial by sex abuse victims alleging that church officials had concealed child molesters in the priesthood, according to Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Blaine and other victims protested Skylstad's election. "I think bankruptcy is less about the money than it is about keeping secrets hidden," she said.
Skylstad declined through a spokesman to comment until the conclusion of the bishops' meeting tomorrow.
McChesney told reporters she was leaving her post because "I have done what I was asked to do." As the chief enforcer of the church's policies against sexual abuse, she had met resistance from some bishops. But she said that the second round of audits of U.S. dioceses, scheduled for release in February, would show that the vast majority have fully implemented their prevention programs.