A bishop whose diocese plans to seek bankruptcy protection from millions of dollars in clergy sex abuse claims was elected Monday as the next president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (search).

Bishop William Skylstad (search) of Spokane, Wash., was elected overwhelmingly to succeed Bishop Wilton Gregory (search) of Belleville, Ill., who is ending his three-year term after leading the conference through the height of the abuse crisis.

Out of a field of 10 candidates, Skylstad received 52 percent of the vote. No one else came close. Chicago Cardinal Francis George (search) was elected vice president.

Advocates for abuse victims had opposed Skylstad's candidacy, saying he was trying to avoid responsibility for mishandling cases of priests who molested young people. Some church observers had also wondered whether the bishops would want their top leader to come from a diocese embroiled in abuse-related financial problems.

However, Skylstad had already served three years as conference vice president and every vice president who has sought the presidency has won.

Skylstad made no immediate comment on his election, as the bishops continued the first day of their fall meeting. George, who took the podium on unrelated business after the election, praised Skylstad for his dedication to the conference.

Last week, Skylstad announced his diocese's plans to declare bankruptcy at month's end, saying the amount of damages being sought in lawsuits exceeds the diocese's net worth. He is named in several lawsuits that accuse the Spokane Diocese of covering up molestation by priests.

Skylstad has argued that nearly all the alleged abuse in the Spokane Diocese occurred before he became bishop in 1990. He has publicly released the names of alleged abusers, called on all victims to come forward, cooperated with law enforcement and offered to pay for counseling.

He also has appeared at numerous meetings with parishioners and repeatedly apologized for the misdeeds of other priests.

Skylstad, 70, was born in Omak, in rural north-central Washington. At 14 he left for a seminary in Ohio, and was ordained 12 years later. He served in the Spokane Diocese until 1977, when he became bishop of the neighboring Yakima Diocese. In 1990 he was named Spokane bishop, leading a flock of about 90,000 people in 83 parishes.

The bishops' president does not set policy, but represents U.S. bishops to the Vatican and acts as chief spokesman for the American church, among other duties. For much of the last three years, that has meant Gregory has been the public face of the bishops, discussing their new safeguards against abuse and their efforts to restore trust in their leadership.

Gregory opened the assembly with his final presidential address, apologizing for any mistakes he made as he led the church through the abuse crisis and urging his fellow prelates to resolve internal differences that have emerged during the scandal. Skylstad will succeed him as president at the end of this week's meeting.

"A strengthened sense of collegiality among ourselves can only redound to the common good of the church in the United States which we tend and love," he said. "It will also serve as a very important witness to our beloved nation of how religious and civil discourse can and must take place."