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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Incoming bishop inherits repercussions of diocese’s bankruptcy

Bishop Blase Cupich, left, newly appointed to the Diocese of Spokane, and Bishop William Skylstad, who is retiring, burst into laughter during a press conference Wednesday announcing Cupich’s appointment.  (Dan Pelle)

The incoming Catholic bishop of Spokane is undaunted by the challenges of leading a cash-strapped church in the aftermath of bankruptcy brought on by the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Bishop Blase J. Cupich, 61, said he is adept at doing more with less in western South Dakota, where he was bishop of Rapid City.

“The important thing is mission, not money,” Cupich said. “If you get mission right, money follows.”

The diocese has little cash in the wake of a $48 million bankruptcy settlement sparked by about 180 allegations of sexual abuse. The diocese has disclosed the names of 11 priests, 12 Jesuits and four clergy within other Catholic orders that it acknowledges sexually abused children over several decades.The aftershocks from the bankruptcy continue to linger.

There’s less money for outreach efforts, and the diocese sold many of its assets, including its Chancery in downtown Spokane and the home of retiring Bishop William S. Skylstad.The new bishop inherits a tangle of residual legal issues.

The diocese is in contempt of federal court, along with one of its law firms and an attorney, for what a federal judge said amounted to intimidating a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee.

Those contempt findings have since been appealed to U.S. District Court.

More pressing is a recent appellate decision last week against the diocese. The decision ends a diocese maneuver to reject sex abuse claims that continue to be filed even though the bankruptcy case wrapped up three years ago. The church doesn’t have the money to pay additional claims.

The diocese has two choices: keep appealing, this time to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, or drop the matter, said a lawyer familiar with the case. The decision may ultimately rest with Cupich, who said he has yet to immerse himself in the issues. And it doesn’t get easier in the years ahead.

Cupich also must keep abreast of the ongoing claims made by at least 20 men who allege they were sexually abused at the Catholic-based Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. Many of the men accuse the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner – a popular retired priest in good standing with the diocese.

A jury ruled in favor of Morning Star in the first trial, leaving many in the Catholic community wondering about the veracity of sex abuse claims that were paid. Cupich may have to mend relations with some laity leaders who disagreed with how the bankruptcy was handled but nevertheless agreed to collect money from the pews to help fund the bankruptcy bailout. Some parishes even pledged their churches as collateral to ensure the diocese would meet its obligation.

Cupich brings a reputation as a skilled administrator with a keen intellect and a penchant for moderation.

He said Catholic bishops have done their best to reach out to victims and adopt rules that put children first.

“We really have, I think, done a great deal to make sure that the ways of the past are over,” he said.

The Nebraska native said he was up to any challenge.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said.

Cupich has been in Rapid City since 1998. He is chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Protection for Children and Young People, and is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Scripture Translation.

Cupich earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in 1971. He went to seminary at North American College and Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained in 1975.

He talked about being impressed with the Catholic network of support services in Eastern Washington, largely supported by 99,363 Catholics worshipping in 82 parishes.

Cupich’s diocese in Rapid City largely escaped the problems of clergy sex abuse. He credited his predecessor there with taking the necessary steps of victim outreach and firm handling of priests many years before the crisis erupted across the country.

“I know that there have been some moments where healing has taken place among victims,” he said.

Skylstad acknowledged the difficulties in announcing his retirement and move into a consulting role.

“Although these years have not been without challenges,” Skylstad said, “it has been a time of great joy in my life.

“And I mean that.”

Cupich will be installed Sept. 3.