When Spokane Bishop William Skylstad gathers with fellow church leaders at next week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he will be one of only three bishops in the country who have chosen to file for bankruptcy as a way to deal with the growing number of sex abuse claims.
As the conference’s vice president, Skylstad is expected to be elected president of the powerful group. But in the wake of his Chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement, his critics continue to question whether he is fit to be a leader.
“I hate to see the Catholic bishops name someone who, in effect, is a failure,” said Don Brockett, former Spokane County prosecutor and member of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group formed in response to the crisis in the church. Brockett and other critics say the bishop lacks the vision and even the ethics to lead an organization that serves as a moral compass for Catholics.
Flanked by victims and their supporters, Brockett stood outside Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral Thursday to demand the bishop’s resignation. Skylstad’s announcement on Wednesday that the diocese will file bankruptcy “shows the cover-up continues and constitutes further abuse of victims,” Brockett said.
Despite the outrage, many in the diocese have spoken up in the bishop’s defense. Supporters say Skylstad is well-respected among his fellow bishops and has tried to be fair as he grapples with the current sex abuse crisis. Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy became unavoidable after all the lawsuits, said several Catholics who walked down the steps of Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral after the noon Mass Thursday.
“It’s a financial matter,” said Michael Flannery. “I don’t think the church can say sorry to all the people who want closure because the insurance carriers won’t let them. … (The sex abuse scandal) hasn’t affected my faith at all. The church has seen bigger crises over the years.”
Marjorie Garza, who was allegedly abused by a nun in Spokane more than 30 years ago, said the bishop has shown her “tremendous” compassion by offering to pay for her counseling and medication. “There is healing within the church,” she said.
When her depression got out of control last year as a result of the alleged abuse, Garza sought help from the Spokane Diocese. “A million dollars couldn’t compare to the counseling that the bishop and diocese has given to me,” said Garza, 52. “It gave me a chance to regain my life.”
Michael Ross, one of the founders of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the diocese can be helpful to victims if “all you want is ‘I’m sorry’ and a little counseling.”
“But if you want anything more, you get strangled by their attorneys and their methods,” said Ross, who will travel to the bishops’ meeting in Washington, D.C., to protest Skylstad’s expected elevation to the presidency.
The Spokane bishop is one of 10 diocesan leaders who have been nominated for the conference leadership. Among that pool are two cardinals – Chicago’s Francis George, who once served as bishop of Yakima, and Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, whom Skylstad edged out of the vice presidency three years ago.
Both president and vice president are elected by a simple majority, but traditionally, the vice president is chosen as the leader, according to the USCCB’s department of communications.
The Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the Diocese of Spokane, said he can’t speculate on the bishop’s chances of becoming the leader of the USCCB. Unlike the presidency of the United States, the presidency of the bishops’ conference isn’t something you campaign for, Dublinski emphasized. Skylstad simply allowed his name to be submitted for the candidacy, he said.
“Bishop Skylstad has been called to serve the Spokane Diocese through good times and bad, and he intends to serve it through to the end,” said Dublinski, in response to the victims’ demand for the bishop’s resignation. “His ministry has been characterized by service, even through the difficult times.”
Skylstad declined to be interviewed about the matter until after the bishops’ vote on Monday.
In a letter sent to 25,000 Catholic households on Oct. 30, Skylstad wrote: “If honored by my fellow bishops, I am committed to fulfilling my duties first as bishop of the diocese, and second, as the president.” He said that as vice president of the conference, he has been able to balance his responsibilities to the USCCB and also to the diocese, despite the increase in travel. “My primary focus will be my continuing duties as your bishop,” Skylstad emphasized.
Bankruptcy doesn’t seem to be an issue for the bishops. Another of the candidates for president is Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Diocese, the second diocese in the country, after the Portland Archdiocese, to file for bankruptcy.
Kicanas said although he is honored to be nominated, he has no expectation of being elected. Instead of talking about himself, Kicanas praised Skylstad’s ability to lead the bishops’ conference.
“People have the highest regard for Bishop Skylstad,” he said during a telephone interview. “People trust that he’s looking for a fair way to help those who have been harmed (by clergy sexual abuse). … If the Diocese of Spokane does indeed file for bankruptcy, the diocese will remain his first priority, even if he becomes president.”
Skylstad is the ideal candidate, Kicanas added, because the conference needs a leader who can listen, help the bishops reach consensus and articulate the goals and efforts of the conference. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who recently served as president, was forced to deal with the sex abuse scandal in his own diocese, said Kicanas. Gregory’s experience with that problem and his efforts at healing enhanced his ability to lead, he said. Dealing with Chapter 11 bankruptcy could prove to be a positive for Skylstad, the Tucson bishop said. “The trauma of the crisis and the process of healing may bring about the qualities that are needed” for leadership, he said.
Kicanas also said that filing for bankruptcy was the right decision for the Diocese of Tucson. “So far, it’s been a very cooperative process and I’ve been encouraged by it,” he said. “I hope the people in the Diocese of Spokane will understand that this is the church’s desire to heal the hurt that has taken place in a fair and equitable way.”
In Tucson, the deadline for claims of clergy sexual abuse is April 15, 2005. The diocese has published notices in English and Spanish throughout the United States and Mexico to find more victims, he said. It also plans to sell property as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.
Meanwhile, in Spokane, filing for bankruptcy will halt a potentially embarrassing lawsuit from going to trial on Nov. 29. That suit involves three brothers who were allegedly raped and sodomized for years by Patrick O’Donnell, a Spokane priest who has admitted to molesting boys.
Bankruptcy will also temporarily stop another two dozen lawsuits from being heard by juries. Those victims, along with roughly 30 other plaintiffs who have filed claims against the diocese, remain resolute about getting their day in court, attorneys said, and the diocese will only spend more money by declaring bankruptcy.
“In the end, it will be far less expensive for the bishop and this diocese to do the right thing now, and avoid a prolonged bankruptcy,” said Michael Pfau, who represents the plaintiffs. “These victims, and this community, will only be further harmed by the delay and expense bankruptcy will entail.”