Skylstad was elected conference president by his fellow bishops on the first ballot, just days after announcing his diocese will go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He said he plans to file for bankruptcy protection.
Skylstad, who has served as conference vice president for the past three years, received 120 votes, or 52 percent of the total in a field of 10 candidates. Every vice president who has sought the top job has won.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George was elected vice president for the next three-year term, which begins for both men at the end of this week's fall meeting of U.S. bishops.
Advocates for abuse victims have accused Skylstad of using bankruptcy to help his diocese avoid responsibility for mishandling abuse claims against priests. He is named in several lawsuits that accuse the Spokane Diocese of covering up molestation.
However, Skylstad insisted last week that the amount of damages being sought in lawsuits exceeded the diocese's net worth. By month's end, he said, Spokane will become the third U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy; Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., already have.
Skylstad thanked church leaders for electing him in brief remarks Monday afternoon. He pledged to continue backing policies that protect children.
"I have no doubt that the days ahead will continue to be days of both blessings and challenges for all of us. It would be easy to be intimidated by the challenges," he said. Still, he said, "we together can look forward to the future with hope and joy."
Skylstad succeeds Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who led the conference for three years during the height of the molestation crisis. As vice president, Skylstad was at the center of the bishops' efforts to restore credibility to their leadership.
He helped Gregory represent the conference to the Vatican and he attended an emergency summit Pope John Paul II called with U.S. church leaders in April 2002, when the scandal was spreading to every American diocese.
Now, as president, Skylstad will become the bishops' chief spokesman, among other duties.
Asked if Catholics would trust Skylstad in that role, considering the problems in his own dioceses, George said Skylstad was deeply committed to the abuse prevention plan the bishops adopted in June 2002 in Dallas.
That policy, which is now under review and may be revised, bars offenders from church work and creates a national lay watchdog panel to help monitor compliance.
"I think Bishop Skylstad has shown himself quite interested in, and committed to, keeping the promises of Dallas," George said in a brief interview. "I think Bishop Skylstad is as dedicated to keeping these promises as anyone else."
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, came to Washington to protest Skylstad's candidacy and called his election "disturbing."
"It feels as though bishops want to continue pretending everything is fixed," Clohessy said. "To elect someone else would have been a sign that they cared about victims."
Voice of the Faithful, the national lay reform movement, urged Skylstad to hold other bishops accountable for failing to respond to abuse claims and encourage them to be more open about diocesan finances.