BALTIMORE – The cardinal elected Tuesday to lead the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops’ conference was already one of the most influential men in the American church.
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago for a decade, earned two doctorates in philosophy and theology, knows six languages and has deep ties within the Vatican.
He previously served as the bishop of Yakima, a post also once held by the man he succeeds as head of the bishops’ conference – Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane.
As the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, George will host Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington and New York in April and guide church leaders through a presidential election season in which religion will once again figure prominently.
George received 85 percent of the vote out of a field of 10 candidates at the bishops’ fall meeting. He had served the past three years as the conference vice president. The prelate holding that job customarily is elected to the top post.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., was elected as the new vice president on the third ballot.
Public policy issues, from war to politics, are part of the agenda of this week’s event.
Skylstad released a statement Tuesday calling conditions in Iraq “unacceptable.” He stressed the need for a bipartisan “responsible transition” out of the country.
Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, vehemently opposed the military strike, and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has condemned the “continual slaughter” in the country.
Skylstad said some policy makers have failed to recognize American failures in the invasion and occupation, while other U.S. lawmakers haven’t acknowledged “the potential human consequences of very rapid withdrawal.”
“Our country needs a new direction to reduce the war’s deadly toll and to bring our people together to deal with the conflict’s moral and human dimensions,” Skylstad said.
George, 70, is taking over at a time of diminishing influence for the conference. The group has cut jobs and committees to streamline its work and save money. Bishops have said that the funds they turn over for conference work are badly needed in their home dioceses.
In Chicago, George succeeded the beloved Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1996. In George’s first year as archbishop, disgruntled priests dubbed him “Francis the Corrector.” But he soon became a leader in the American church, defending Catholic orthodoxy and working with Vatican agencies reforming how the church responds to clergy sex abuse.
However, the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have protested his election.
The archdiocese waited months to remove an accused parish priest in Chicago, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five boys ages 8 to 12. George has acknowledged that he failed to act soon enough in McCormack’s case.
When Skylstad stepped up to head the bishops’ conference in 2004, Spokane was one of three Catholic dioceses nationwide turning to Bankruptcy Court to shield its assets from payments for sex-abuse claims. Since then, the Spokane diocese agreed to pay $48 million after more than 180 people filed claims alleging clergy sex abuse. Some $10 million of that is being raised from parishioners in the diocese.
“Although this day has been long in the making, this is not a day of rejoicing,” Skylstad said when the agreement to settle the bankruptcy was announced. “The damage has been profound.”