Jan. 10--A record number of America's Roman Catholic bishops will be eligible for retirement in 2003, starting a gradual shift in leadership as the U.S. church seeks to recover from the clerical molestation crisis.

By December, 32 of the 283 bishops active in the United States will be 75--the church's retirement age--or older. It is the largest number of U.S. bishops eligible to resign in one year since Pope Paul VI set a retirement age in 1966, according to Catholic News Service.'

The potential retirees include 16 bishops who lead their own dioceses. There is also one cardinal--Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia--who will turn 80 in June. The remainder are either auxiliary bishops or prelates for Eastern-rite churches and the military.

Under church law, a bishop submits his resignation to the Vatican at age 75 but cannot step down until the pope gives his approval. Pope John Paul II has increasingly allowed elderly prelates to keep working. Of 17 bishops who turned 75 last year, only a handful retired. "Once the pope himself turned 75, it appeared that it was harder for him to make these other people retire when he wasn't himself," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

Three of the bishops who lead dioceses have already submitted their resignations, but the Vatican has not publicly commented on their status. They are Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., and Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa.

Bevilacqua's spokeswoman, Catherine Rossi, said the Philadelphia cardinal will continue to serve until the Holy See directs him to leave. (At 80, he loses the right to vote in the conclave choosing the next pope.)

The precise impact of the retirements is hard to gauge, but there is some hope among abuse victims that the new bishops will be more sympathetic to their ordeals. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said dioceses hit hard by the molestation crisis would benefit from new leadership. Bishops who run dioceses are responsible for implementing the discipline plan that the prelates collectively drafted and the Vatican approved last year.

"As a general rule, some of the younger bishops have been slightly better than their more elderly colleagues in dealing with survivors," Clohessy said.

Daily, who formerly worked in the Boston Archdiocese, and Rodimer are among the church leaders who have dealt with particularly messy scandals, as are several of the other bishops who soon will be eligible to step down.

Among them is Bishop Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis., also a former official in the Boston Archdiocese. Both he and Daily have been subpoenaed to appear before a Massachusetts grand jury investigating abuse claims.

Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said 2003 is likely the first of several years of significant numbers of retirements, as bishops from the large ordination classes of the 1950s end their careers. "There will be a change of generations," Matovina said.

With all the turmoil over how the church handled abusive priests, he said some bishops will be relieved to leave their jobs now, despite their reluctance to scale back their service to the church. "At the age of 72 or 74, they start thinking 'I don't need to fight this battle myself,'" he said.

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