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Who Will Lead Catholic Bishops?

As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops come together here for their annual meeting, one issue dominating the assembly is the question of who will next lead the group.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., is ending his three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after guiding the American church through the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

He is scheduled to give his final presidential address Monday morning.

Bishop William Skylstad, the conference vice president, is in line to succeed him. Every vice president who has sought the top job in the bishops' elections has won. However, Skylstad last week announced that his Diocese of Spokane, Wash., was to become the third U.S. diocese to declare bankruptcy in the face of millions of dollars in clergy sex abuse claims.

Some church observers wonder if he can lead the conference while running his troubled diocese. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has accused Skylstad of covering up for guilty clergy and the group is in Washington to protest his candidacy.

Church leaders also plan to decide whether to join the broadest alliance of Christians ever formed in the United States. The group, called Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., would include evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Catholics. The group hopes to collectively represent Christian views on different issues. Catholic churches in other countries belongs to similar interdenominational organizations.

Separately, the bishops will consider starting a multiyear initiative aimed at strengthening marriage, as the divorce rate remains high and gays lobby for the right to wed, which the church opposes.

Another hot topic on the agenda at the conference this year is an update from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on the work of the bishops' Catholics in public life task force.

The bishops have spent many months publicly debating whether they should deny Communion to dissenting Catholic lawmakers. The issue arose when Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic who backs abortion rights, became his party's nominee for president and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would withhold the sacrament from the Massachusetts senator.

At the bishops' meeting last June, the task force released a statement criticizing Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, while affirming church law that individual bishops can determine how to respond to candidates.

Although the abuse crisis has dominated bishops' meetings in the past two years, the issue will take up little of their public agenda this week.

The newest appointees to the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel bishops formed to oversee their national policy on combating abuse, are expected be introduced. And the bishops will be asked to authorize collecting data on new abuse claims in dioceses.

Part of the bishops' meeting, which ends Thursday morning, will be held in private.

By Rachel Zoll