Down-to-earth state bishop to help broker church crisis

After months of revelations and accusations, after sex scandals involving priests have spread from Boston to Seattle to St. Petersburg, the focus shifts to Dallas this week, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops begins meeting Thursday to address the crisis. Standing squarely in the middle of it all will be a former farmboy from Omak.

As vice president of the bishops conference, the Most Rev. William Skylstad, bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, holds the second-highest position in the national organization. He is expected to be elected president once his three-year term expires.

It's been a long journey from the one-room schoolhouse he once attended to the Vatican halls he calls on regularly. This week he travels from his small diocese of 81 parishes to help lead the bishops at a time the nation — indeed, the world — expects them to do something dramatic about priests who have sexually abused children.

To hear many tell it, Skylstad's down-to-earth demeanor and practical values — probably as much products of the farm as of the church — will be among his greatest strengths at the conference.

They expect the 68-year-old Skylstad, considered socially liberal and conservative on church doctrine, to be a voice of reason and knowledge, listening to different viewpoints, weighing in, mediating. It is those qualities that some say will play an important role in brokering agreement among the bishops on a policy with enough consensus to send a clear signal to the Vatican.

An ad hoc committee of the bishops conference last week recommended a policy that would, among other things, allow for easier defrocking of priests who have abused minors. The Vatican must approve the policy.

Bishops nationwide have expressed a wide range of opinions on the recommendations.

Is he tough enough?

Skylstad's ability to listen, to make sure no one feels slighted even when he disagrees with them, will be crucial. But those same mediating skills, some say, may also be a weakness.

Some wonder whether he has the toughness to push through a hard-hitting policy that others may disagree with, especially since he embodies the conflict some in the church feel about the issue. While Skylstad says the church must establish a hard-line policy against clergy who abuse minors, he also expresses ambivalence about defrocking those who have dedicated their lives to the church.

Skylstad "believes in the core of his being that 10 people can make a better decision than one person," said Monsignor John Steiner, vicar general in the Spokane Diocese. But "if the group doesn't come to common consensus, he has a hard time saying there's a clear vision of where we need to go. That's the way he's run the diocese."

Skylstad says collaboration will be important in Dallas. But he knows the conference has to pass a substantial policy.

"There's a lot of anger that's built up over the years," he said. "Right now I'm not sure we can afford to do otherwise."

The lessons of youth

Skylstad was born in the Okanogan County town of Omak, delivered on a table in the garage by his father, an immigrant from Norway. His mother, a devout Catholic from Minnesota, made sure the family attended Mass every Sunday.

Growing up on his family's apple orchard, he absorbed the values of the farming life, lessons he would sprinkle into homilies throughout the years.

"In farming, you really have to trust in the providence of God," he said. "There are a lot of parallels."

Skylstad's humble roots still show, people say, in his modesty and groundedness. He uses senior coupons to fly to committee meetings. He cooks for himself and likes to host barbecues.

He attended a one-room schoolhouse with no indoor plumbing. By the time he was 14, though, he was going to a boarding-school seminary in Ohio, already having felt called to the priesthood.

He discovered a love for math, science and technical gadgets and ended up teaching math and physics in a seminary for a time. His love of gadgets continues to this day. He has a Global Positioning System for his car and operates a ham radio.

There's something about the orderliness of math and science that appeals to him and carries over to the way he conducts his life and business.

"He'll always handle himself with a nice calm that does not turn off any opponents," said the retired archbishop of Anchorage, Francis T. Hurley. "I don't think I've ever known him to raise his voice."

But that even temperament has meant, sometimes, that "he's not hard enough. He won't pull the trigger on someone that needs a trigger pulled on him," said Steiner, his colleague and adviser.

Skylstad admits to that. "You have to call people to relationships, love your neighbor as yourself," he said.

Skylstad holds degrees from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio; Washington State University; and Gonzaga University. He was ordained a priest in 1960 and served as pastor at St. Joseph and Assumption parishes, both in Spokane County. From 1977 to 1990, he served as bishop of the Yakima Diocese, where, according to Yakima resident Stella Vay Gilligan, 78, an active Catholic, Skylstad established himself as "a very good listener, a very kind and generous man."

Dealing with reported abuse

While there, he dealt with three cases of sexual abuse by priests, he said. In two of those cases, the priest was no longer allowed to minister. In the third case, Skylstad sent the priest through a treatment program; another bishop later allowed the priest to minister in another diocese.

"At this particular point in time, if (such an) incident is brought to me, almost every bishop now, that person could no longer minister," he said. "Years ago there was a sense that they could continue to minister once they'd gone through a treatment program. Now the climate has changed dramatically. "

Skylstad came to the Spokane Diocese in 1990, where, again, he had to deal with cases of sexual abuse, some of which had occurred long before his watch.

There was Brother August Ludwig, principal of DeSales High School in Walla Walla, whom the Spokane Diocese said molested at least five teenaged boys in the 1970s. Some of Ludwig's victims and their families are still angry at Skylstad for the way he handled the case.

Philip Determan, today a 43-year-old educator living in Florida, says Ludwig molested him when he was 17. In 2000, Determan and his brother, who was also abused, received a settlement of $15,000 each from the Spokane Diocese and $20,000 each from the Marianist Order, to which Ludwig belonged.

Determan is angry at Skylstad who, he said, never apologized from the pulpit.

"He does not get it," Determan said. "He does not admit that he did anything wrong in the handling of the situation."

For Skylstad to now publicly say what the church should be doing on the issue is "the height of hubris," Determan said. "This is the fox guarding the henhouse. Not just that, he's selling the eggs and making money off it."

Skylstad says he has apologized publicly many times, most notably in local newspapers.

"I followed through, in every instance," he said. "I called (victims) to apologize, to offer counseling to them, to contact the authorities. I made it clear that whenever there are victims, we offer help or counseling."

Bishop's meeting

When: Thursday through Saturday

Where: Fairmont Hotel, Dallas

Why: Nearly 300 bishops are expected to debate and approve a policy on how dioceses handle clergy sexual-abuse cases.

Quote: "The moral authority of the leadership is really up for grabs. So I think the bishops — certainly most, if not all of them — are terrified of having lost their moral authority and aware that it's awful hard to get back." — The Rev. Donald Senior, president, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

These days, the Spokane Diocese already has instituted almost all the procedures the ad hoc committee of the bishops conference is recommending, Skylstad said. They include reporting incidents of abuse to civil authorities and convening a committee of laypeople to look into allegations.

He knows some victims still feel deep anger toward the church. That's why he favors passing a more restrictive policy.

"Given the hurt and the anger and the trauma victims have experienced — and it's considerable — I'm not sure that's a good signal to give to them if we have some wiggle room," he said.

When pressed, Skylstad says he's inclined to favor a policy of "one strike, you're out" if it means removing from active ministry any priest who has abused even one minor. But he expresses ambivalence about going as far as defrocking abusive priests. "I'm not completely comfortable with my feelings in that regard. It's a very complicated issue. That's a very harsh penalty."

Given that most of the cases being revealed involve priests who have spent decades in the church, he said, "suddenly you kick someone out on the street — is that something you want the church to do? We have to be very sensitive to victims and families, certainly. But the flip side is you have to be careful of demonizing abusers as well. These are human beings as well, who sometimes have very painful pasts."

Strong stands

Skylstad has stood firmly on many issues, including championing the environmental stewardship of the Columbia River and, in 1989, pulling Catholic Charities out of the United Way campaign because some of the money donated to United Way would have gone to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions.

But some say while he's firm in his core values, he leaves room for nuance around the edges.

Some more-liberal Catholics have expressed dismay that he isn't more outspoken, like his friend and mentor, retired Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.

"A lot of people would like to see him get tough" in speaking out about the mandatum, said the Rev. Patrick Ford, former academic vice president at Gonzaga University, now working with the Oregon Province of the Jesuits. The mandatum is a document the Vatican wants all Catholic schools to have, attesting that they teach only authentic Catholicism. Opponents have decried it as a danger to academic freedom.

But Skylstad firmly believes a bishop's role is to be loyal to the doctrine of the church. There are ways in which to object, he said, but to do so in a public forum would be inappropriate.

While Skylstad is straightforward about sticking to his principles, "I'd say he's not easily identified with some ideological cast," Steiner said. "You're not looking at someone who'd come down easily on a list of liberal agendas or conservative agendas. It's really his spirituality that guides and anchors his actions as a bishop."

It's a practical, down-to-earth spirituality, Steiner says, a "how do you keep the apple trees alive when it's frosty" approach.

Skylstad gained the respect of his peers while serving and chairing various committees of the bishops conference, being an advocate for the poor, the unborn, for universal health care.

He won the election for the vice presidency last year, defeating an archbishop from St. Louis who had spent many years at the Vatican.

Skylstad is "deeply respected" as a man of "great principle and great pastoral skill," said John Carr, secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace for the bishops conference. "I know Spokane's a wonderful place, but for a bishop from Spokane to be elected vice president shows the great respect the bishops have for Skylstad."

Skylstad doesn't have a big ego, said Steiner, which is helpful in this situation. "You gather 280 bishops, you've just gathered 280 kings. It's not one power structure. It's multiple power structures. Is he a savvy player to that? Yeah."

But his colleagues say he rose in the ranks not by being manipulative but by being smart, hard-working, well-liked. When he's faced with a group that can't agree on an issue, he's likely to listen to individual objections and try to craft something the group will agree on.

At a previous conference, several bishops objected to elements of a statement on integrating Catholic social teaching more deeply into Catholic schools. Skylstad picked up the phone and tried to deal with each bishop's concerns without watering down the statement. The statement passed unanimously.

In the past few months Skylstad has also become something of a media celebrity, appearing on network news shows and being quoted in newspapers around the world.

"He's good with the media because he's himself with the media," Carr said. "He says what he thinks."

At the conference this week, he most certainly will be in the media spotlight again. But he also will be working behind the scenes, gauging what other bishops are thinking, acting as eyes and ears for Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, doing a delicate balancing act between listening and pushing for what he thinks the church should be doing right now.

The Dallas meeting "will probably be one of our most important meetings ever," Skylstad said. "The church has never experienced something like this before in this country. We need to do this well."

Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or