WASHINGTON – As he assumes the leadership of the nation’s Catholic hierarchy, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane has one request for the people of his diocese.
“Please pray for me,” he said Wednesday. “This is a significant responsibility, and I ask for your prayers.”
As the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drew to a close, the group’s newly elected president spoke in an interview of the challenges that await him in the coming three years.
Skylstad will have his hands full – not only with the responsibilities that come with the USCCB leadership, but also as he takes the controversial step of declaring bankruptcy for the diocese.
That leaves him with often conflicting roles: On one hand, he is the bishop, a man of God who must act with compassion and forgiveness. But Skylstad is also the diocese’s CEO, responsible for its finances and numerous programs.
Justice must govern his actions, he said. As he remains sensitive to those who have been harmed by sexual abuse, he also must consider the diocese’s work in Eastern Washington and the thousands of people – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – who benefit from its services.
“I’ve never dealt with such complex issues,” he said. “Yes, you struggle, but you have to make decisions, decisions that are prudent, fair, just and real.”
And as he grapples with a very public predicament involving the diocese’s money, he also must continue performing his other obligations such as visiting parishes, celebrating Mass and being part of the diocese’s day-to-day life.
Spokane will be the third diocese in the country to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of increasing sex abuse claims. Skylstad, who has served as Spokane’s bishop since 1990, said the “tens of millions” of dollars in claims have surpassed the net worth of the diocese. While victims say bankruptcy postpones trials and delays their healing, Skylstad said Chapter 11 reorganization ensures “justice for everyone involved,” including those who have been molested by clergy.
“My first priority is the Diocese of Spokane,” Skylstad said, when asked how he will juggle his duties to the bishops’ conference along with his responsibilities to parishioners.
He acknowledged that the USCCB presidency will demand a lot of attention and time, including more meetings out of town and additional trips to Rome, but his cell phone and e-mail will help him stay on top of his busy schedule. He also will turn to Monsignor John Steiner and the Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s vicar generals, to continue assisting him with the governance of the diocese.
While bankruptcy is something he wishes he could avoid, the experience in the Diocese of Tucson shows that the process isn’t impossible, Skylstad said. Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas filed for Chapter 11 in September, just two months after the Archdiocese of Portland declared bankruptcy.
“Up to this point, the process of Chapter 11 reorganization has been moving along cooperatively and expeditiously,” Kicanas said earlier this week. The Tucson bishop added that the bankruptcy proceedings haven’t taken up too much of his time.
In a previous interview with The Spokesman-Review, Kicanas indicated that if the Diocese of Spokane filed for bankruptcy, the move would be “the church’s desire to heal the hurt that has taken place in a fair and equitable way.”
When he was elected Monday by his fellow bishops, Skylstad received a standing ovation from a ballroom full of hundreds of men all wearing the traditional priestly garb of black pants and shirt with the white collar.
“I am deeply honored and deeply humbled by this election,” said Skylstad, a native of Omak, Wash., and the son of an immigrant apple farmer.
With 52 percent of the vote, Skylstad didn’t win by the usual wide margin. As the vice president, he was expected to automatically be elected as president.
But the situation is different now, he said. Since he became the vice president three years ago, the Catholic Church in the United States has perhaps experienced its most tumultuous period with the outbreak of the sex abuse crisis.
“I figured (the election) would be fairly close,” said Skylstad, noting that he was up against some prominent candidates including two cardinals and several archbishops.
He wanted to be as open as possible about the problems he faced in Spokane, he said, explaining why he announced his decision to file for bankruptcy last week.
Attorneys for plaintiffs suing the Spokane Diocese say it was a tactic to get them to settle before the trial, now scheduled for Jan. 3. But Skylstad insisted he simply wanted parishioners and his fellow bishops to know what was happening in Spokane. He didn’t want to be elected president and then surprise everyone with a bankruptcy filing.
‘Mistakes were made’
Now that he’s the head of the USCCB, Skylstad said his goals include fostering healing, reconciliation and unity within the church. The bishops’ credibility was damaged by the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, and he will continue to address that issue.
When the crisis unfolded, Skylstad helped Bishop Wilton Gregory, the outgoing USCCB president, convey the gravity of the situation to the Vatican. Along with Gregory, Skylstad helped lead the U.S. bishops as they uncovered the scope of the problem and enacted a national charter to protect children.
The charter asks for transparency but doesn’t specifically require bishops to reveal the names of the offending priests. Skylstad vowed to be open and released the names of clergy who had admitted to abusing minors.
Victims’ advocates, however, say Skylstad has yet to release the names of dead priests accused of molestation. They also say the bishop didn’t do enough to protect children from pedophiles and has conspired in the alleged cover-up.
In his sworn depositions, the bishop said he could not remember details from 20 years ago involving warnings about Patrick O’Donnell, a Spokane priest who admitted to abusing boys and who also shared Skylstad’s residence while the two served as pastors of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Honestly, the extent of that abuse wasn’t known to me,” Skylstad said this week. “Mistakes were made in the past, we’re just much more aware now. … To the best of our ability, we’ve handled (the sex abuse problem) in the best and most responsible way we can.”
His actions will receive even more scrutiny now with his new USCCB post, which has gained national attention.
Since the scandal hit Spokane more than two years ago, the bishop has been in the line of fire. Critics have accused him of lying and protecting pedophiles. They say he not only lacks the qualifications to be USCCB president, but also the ethics.
“If Bishop Skylstad goes ahead and files for bankruptcy, he will be protecting himself and keeping the secrecy going,” said Mike Ross, an alleged victim who traveled from Spokane to Washington, D.C., to protest Skylstad’s election. Ross, the co-founder of Spokane’s Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is suing both the Diocese of Spokane and the Diocese of Yakima for the alleged abuse he suffered.
“People’s anger can be harsh,” the bishop said. But he continues to ask himself, “What can I do to become better?” especially when the fingers point in his direction.
Skylstad doesn’t have much time to finish the work he has set out to do. In less than five years, he will turn 75 and must turn in the required letter of resignation to the pope, who will decide whether Skylstad should continue to serve as a bishop or retire.
“My relationship with God, the church and people – that’s what defines me,” said Skylstad. “My family is the diocese I serve. … It’s not always easy because the church is very human. But with all the pain and hurt, we will become better and stronger.”