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Bishop Edward Kmiec has been attending meetings with his fellow bishops for 22 years, so he was in familiar territory this past week in Washington, D.C.

The only major differences were the offerings of "congratulations" and "God bless yous" he received from clergy gathered from around the country.

Kmiec's first U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting as the bishop of Buffalo wrapped up Thursday, with few surprises for the longtime prelate.

Still, noted the former bishop of Nashville, "You look through a new lens at everything that's there."

Kmiec voted to elect Bishop William Skylstad as president of the Catholic bishops, in a tally that was unusually divided.

In prior elections, the current vice president usually has received the overwhelming majority of the vote to serve a three-year term as president.

This year, Skylstad outpolled the next highest vote-getter, Cardinal Francis George, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, but captured only 52 percent of the total vote.

Skylstad is bishop of Spokane, Wash., and has received significant attention in recent weeks. Some clergy sexual abuse victims' groups lobbied against his election, as did some conservative Catholic groups. His diocese is expected to file for bankruptcy, protecting itself against lawsuits stemming from the sex abuse scandal.

The pending bankruptcy might have led some bishops to cast their votes elsewhere, said Kmiec.

"Maybe they thought it might be too distracting for him. That could have entered some bishops' thinking," he said.

But Kmiec said he was confident Skylstad would do well in the post.

"He comes in with a lot of experience and a lot of work and dedication. He's a very gentle soul," Kmiec said.

Also this week, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., blamed the media and "partisan forces" for trying "to pit one bishop against another" over political issues.

"I look around the room and see bishops who have been unfairly attacked as partisan, others who have been called cowards. Some have been accused of being 'single issue,' indifferent to the poor or unconcerned about war. Others have been called unconcerned about the destruction of unborn human life, but preoccupied by poverty or war. That is not who we are," said McCarrick, adding that the bishops were united in their defense of life and the dignity of the human person.

McCarrick's remarks were aimed at the "large percentage of bishops who don't want to make the altar a place of confrontation," said Kmiec, alluding to some bishops' calls to deny Communion to pro-choice politicians.

"To try and stand at the altar and sort all this out -- it's better to continue our catechism and have dialogue with people," Kmiec said. "It's up to the person to develop their own good conscience, an informed conscience, informed by the virtue of Catholic teaching."

The presidential election, during which Sen. John F. Kerry, a Catholic, was criticized by some church leaders for his stance on abortion, was a "flashpoint," said Kmiec. The controversy, he added, "may diminish, although some may still make it a point of debate."

The bishops also voted in favor of researching and writing a pastoral letter on marriage and family -- in response to a 48 percent drop in church-recorded marriages over the past 20 years and an overall decline in U.S. marriages of 24 percent during the same time.

"Marriage has suffered, not just simply in reference to this question about gay marriage," said Kmiec. "This is touching the Catholic church. People are delaying marriage. They're saying co-habitation is a way to prepare for marriage. We say that's not true."

Kmiec said the letter would be several years in the making.


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