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Bishop Skylstad ends term as president, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

A call to faithful citizenship, a consolidation plan, care for earth, immigration and clergy sexual abuse have been among the issues on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ agenda in the three years Bishop William Skylstad of the Diocese of Spokane served as its president.

Bishop William Skylstad
Bishop William Skylstad

The conference reflects on the challenges to and challenges of the Catholic Church today as it seeks to improve life for Catholics, society and the world.

In their Nov. 12 to 15 annual meeting in Baltimore, the bishops approved a statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.” 

That proposal calls for U.S. leaders to work in a bipartisan way to bring a responsible transition in Iraq that ends the war at the earliest time and minimizes the loss of American and Iraqi lives.

It urges Catholics to be involved in public life and use their faith values to shape their political choices, looking at specific issues in light of Catholic social teachings, principals and the common good, Bishop Skylstad said.

The conference’s new president is its former vice president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who like Bishop Skylstad previously was bishop in the Yakima Diocese.

Bishop Skylstad also said the conference approved restructuring and streamlining its operations to save $1.5 million by reducing the number of standing committees from 32 to 16, consolidating to increase efficiency.

“It’s the first restructuring in my 30 years as a bishop,” he said.

The changes and financial cuts are necessary because of increased prices and financial pressure from the sex abuse cases, he said, not from a drop in membership.

The Catholic Church continues growing, with more than 65 million U.S. members.  The bishop said many new members have come with migration and growth in Georgia, Florida, California, Arizona, Denver and Seattle.

“Being president has been a rich experience,” said Bishop Skylstad, who will spend one more year on the administrative committee.

 Interviewed his first day back from the meeting, he said that day he had no calls from the national office in Washington, D.C., in contrast to two or more calls a day previously.  He pointed to a stack of papers—nearly four months of correspondence—he will no longer need to do.

The bishop said that since the emergence of the sex scandal, the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter to Protect Youth and Children.  Early in his term, the Vatican affirmed the charter.

“It caused a massive change in the church, requiring screening and training all priests, employees and volunteers on harassment and sexual abuse.  Two auditors go every week to different dioceses to evaluate if they are living up to the new expectations of the charter,” he said.  “I don’t know of any other organization that has such a thorough auditing process.

“Priests are now aware of boundary issues.  All church workers are trained to respond immediately to anything out of line.  Priests need to respect boundaries with children and adults.  It will make for healthier relations and a safer work place,” he said.

Screening, once only a medical exam, is more demanding and includes psychological tests.

“Priests are trained to understand appropriate relationships and celibacy, so they will be integrated.  If someone cannot work responsibly and respectfully with women, he should not be a priest,” Bishop Skylstad said.

He sees more people now entering the priesthood, especially in the West, South and East.

From the 1940s to 1960s, there was an upswing, and there were more priests than needed, he said.  With a shortage of priests now, Bishop Skylstad feels they are in their rightful place, rather than in ministries laity can do. 

Once priests taught in schools, were parish janitors and directors of Catholic Charities.  Now lay workers fill most of those roles.  Priests focus on pastoral care, Mass, funerals, visiting the sick and overseeing the parish. Of the 310 people in the Washington, D.C., office, 90 percent are laity.

Father Steve Dublinski, Father Mark Paulter and Bishop Skylstad are the only priests in the Chancery office, now on the third floor of 1023 W. Riverside.  The diocese recently vacated second-floor offices for the new owners. 

In the coming year, Catholic Charities offices in the chancery and in other locations around Spokane will move into the Fifth and Browne Medical Building.  It is being remodeled to accommodate the offices under one roof.

Bishop Skylstad finds the diocese of 100,000 parishioners a “vibrant faith community,” with a strong presence in health care, higher education and outreach. 

In areas of rapid growth, such as the Tri Cities, he sees need for a new church facility to handle the crowds.

Through Catholic Charities, there are 700 housing units for low-income people, including 25 units for farm workers in Othello and a new farm worker housing facility with 45 units in Pasco.

“We have a commitment to provide housing for farm workers and the needy,” he said.

The diocese also faces immigration issues.

“It’s frustrating that our country has become paralyzed with 12 to 15 million undocumented workers on whom our economy depends,” he said, urging justice for them.

“We need both respect for borders and respect for needs of people,” he said.

Immigration is one of 20 issues the Faithful Citizenship statement addresses.  Such documents are part of the bishops’ constant effort to “catechize” or form consciences, said Bishop Skylstad, who sees progress in influencing Catholics. For example, once 75 percent of people supported capital punishment.  Among Catholics, support has dropped to 50 percent or less.

On immigration he sees need to educate people and address myths about immigrants preying on the local economy.  In contrast, he said that “immigrants contribute more than they take.”

Previously, Bishop Sklystad helped other Northwest bishops write the Columbia River Pastoral Letter on sustainable rural life and environment.  It is still among the resources on environmental education used in catechism.

“Care for creation is one of the seven pillars of Catholic social teaching.  We need to educate each generation on environmental sustainability,” he said.

The bishop turns 74 in March.  Bishops traditionally resign by their 75th birthdays, but remain bishops.  He plans to stay in Spokane, exploring future options for ministry, such as leading retreats.

For information, call 358-7305.