WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops are holding their fall meeting this week during troubled times for the US 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.
As the meeting opens today, 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 American diocese. The bishops' plan to prevent abuse and remove offenders from parishes is largely in place, despite resistance from some church leaders, and is being reviewed.
But many dioceses say they are buckling under the financial impact of multimillion-dollar abuse lawsuits. Dioceses in Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have declared bankruptcy, and the Spokane, Wash., 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 Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. ''I think the financial cost is really bearing down on them now."
The Spokane bankruptcy has drawn special attention because its leader, Bishop William Skylstad, was in line to succeed Bishop Wilton Gregory, of Belleville, Ill., 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 church observers say the bishops may wonder whether Skylstad can run his bankrupt diocese while leading the conference.
Skylstad is named in several lawsuits that accuse the Spokane Diocese of hiding wrongdoing by priests, and representatives from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests will be in Washington to oppose his candidacy. The group has accused bishops of exaggerating the financial threat from litigation and declaring bankruptcy to escape responsibility for their wrongdoing.
''The timing alone means that's the only reasonable conclusion," said David Clohessy, the group's national director.
The conference president, among many other duties, serves as chief spokesman on the bishops' efforts to protect children and restore trust in church leadership.
It will be a daunting task for whomever is elected. In a recently released poll by two top Catholic researchers, Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University of America and James D. Davidson of Purdue University, 72 percent of lay people said the failure of bishops to stop predator priests was a bigger problem than the molestation itself.
Beyond the abuse crisis, bishops gave a rare public glimpse of their differences during this year's controversy over whether dissenting Catholic politicians should be denied Communion.
The debate began when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would deny the sacrament to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who is Catholic and supports abortion rights. A small number of bishops agreed with Burke, and many others opposed him outright, saying Communion should not be used as a sanction.
Last month, Pope John Paul II, without specifically addressing the Communion issue, told some visiting US bishops that they should build greater unity within the conference.
''The Vatican is very concerned with the appearance of disunity among the bishops," said David Gibson, a former Vatican newsman and author of ''The Coming Catholic Church."
''They want the flock to be able to follow their shepherds."