BALTIMORE - Increasingly frustrated by the war in Iraq and worried about bellicose talk toward Iran, the outgoing president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops described the situation in Iraq yesterday as "unacceptable and unsustainable" and called for the Bush administration to work with Iran and Syria to stabilize the region.
Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, in one of his last acts as president of the bishops conference, issued a public letter saying the bishops are "alarmed by the political and partisan stalemate in Washington" and declaring "our country needs a new direction."
The bishops conference and the Vatican raised concerns about the Iraq war before it began and have issued repeated statements calling for a "responsible transition" to Iraqi self-governance and the withdrawal of US troops "at the earliest opportunity consistent with that goal."
In this latest statement, Skylstad said the bishops are now concerned about the increasing number of Iraqi refugees in the region and about a "suffering Catholic Church" in Iraq.
"The moral demands of this path begin with addressing the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and minimizing further loss of human life," Skylstad wrote.
At a news conference Monday, Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy, said the statement "resists the temptation of saying 'We told you so,' but we have assumed new moral obligations to the Iraqi people, and our own people . . . and not to retreat and leave behind a worse situation, but also not deciding to stay there indefinitely."
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is a national organization whose membership includes all 433 active and retired American bishops. The conference meets twice a year to discuss liturgical and public policy issues facing the Catholic Church, which claims 67 million adherents in the United States.
Skylstad's three-year tenure at the helm of the bishops' conference ends tomorrow; the bishops yesterday overwhelmingly elected Cardinal Francis E. George, the archbishop of Chicago and an ally of Pope Benedict XVI, as the next conference president. His first task will be to help the Catholic Church of the United States prepare for Benedict's first papal visit, which is scheduled for April in Washington, D.C., and New York.
George is highly regarded as an intellectual and a doctrinal conservative. But victim advocacy groups have criticized his handling of several allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Chicago.
"As archbishop of Chicago, Francis George's recent record on the crisis has been characterized by an inexplicably high tolerance for priests credibly accused of sexually assaulting children," said Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, an Internet archive of abuse related documents.
At a news conference yesterday, George did not defend himself in detail, other than to say, "all the bishops - every single one of us - is primarily concerned about protecting children to see that no one is abused again.
"Much of the abuse took place 30 to 50 years ago. It continues in isolated instances today, but along with that pattern of abuse, there is the pattern of protection," George said. "Criticisms of how one handles one or the other case are always possible, and we can learn from them."
On Monday, the bishops heard an update from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which is studying the "causes and context" for the abuse crisis. Maggie Smith, one of the John Jay scholars, described as a "mythology" the notion among reporters that rates of abuse in the Catholic Church were disproportionately high.
Asked yesterday whether that meant the media had treated the Catholic Church unfairly, George said, "it seems to me it's only common sense to recognize that media not only report, they also select, and in that sense they create a reality."
"The more interesting question is whether or not the church herself should be held to a moral standard that is higher than that of the general populace," George said.
Also yesterday, the bishops elected Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston as chairman of the conference's Committee on Clergy, Consecrated life, and Vocations.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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