Tue, Nov 16, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Catholic bishops in the US face troubled times

PREDATOR PRIESTS With many dioceses buckling under abuse lawsuits, bankruptcy is expected to be the main topic at the US bishops' fall meeting


The US' Roman Catholic bishops are holding their fall meeting this week during troubled times for the nation's church.

Two dioceses have declared bankruptcy in the face of millions of dollars in clergy sex abuse claims and a third plans to file at the end of this month. More dioceses are expected to follow.

The presidential election exposed deep divisions among bishops over how they should respond to Catholic politicians -- and to all Catholics -- who are at odds with church teaching on abortion and other issues.

The customarily routine transition that occurs every three years in the leadership of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been sullied by fallout from the molestation scandal.

"The bishops are very anxious," said Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer and former spokesman for the bishops' conference. "A number of dioceses are in pretty perilous financial positions at the present time and what's happened so far may not be the end of it."

Church leaders have cleared many hurdles in the sex abuse crisis, which erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston in January 2002, and has had effects on every US diocese. The bishops' plan to prevent abuse and remove offenders from parishes is largely in place, despite resistance from some church leaders, and is undergoing review.

But many dioceses say they are now buckling under the financial impact of multimillion-dollar abuse lawsuits. Dioceses in Tucson, Arizona, and Portland, Oregon, have declared bankruptcy, and the Spokane, Washington, diocese says it will file at month's end.

"I think the bishops will be talking about bankruptcy over lunch and dinner and coffee," said the Reverend Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

The Spokane bankruptcy has drawn special attention because its leader, Bishop William Skylstad, was in line to succeed Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, as president of the bishops' conference during this fall meeting.

Skylstad has served three years as conference vice president and every vice president who has sought the top job has won in the bishops' elections, but observers say the bishops may wonder if he can run his embattled diocese while leading the conference.

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