WASHINGTON (AP) _ The group that serves as the collective voice of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops elected its first black president Tuesday, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill.
Gregory got 186 of the 249 votes cast, with the other 63 scattered among nine candidates.
Gregory spent the past three years as vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The organization's vice president traditionally ascends to the top office.
The current president, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas, is ending a three-year term.
Black Catholics see Gregory's election as recognition they have long sought from church leaders. Estimates of the number of black Catholics range from 2 million to 3.5 million, out of 63.7 million church members nationwide.
The 53-year-old Chicago native was ordained in 1973 and later earned a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. He became a bishop in 1983, serving for 10 years as auxiliary bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago.
``He never lost the common touch,'' Gregory said of Bernardin.
Gregory's parishioners and friends describe him as similarly humble. He drives himself around his sprawling southern Illinois diocese, easily remembers names and enjoys a good joke.
``If you were standing there talking to him, you wouldn't know he was a bishop,'' said Richard Mark chief executive of St. Mary's Hospital in Gregory's diocese. ``He's very down to earth with everyone.''
Gregory was installed as Belleville's bishop seven years ago. The diocese of about 105,000 Catholics is in southern Illinois and includes farming communities and the poor, predominantly black city of East St. Louis.
Gregory is known as a compelling speaker who frankly discusses racism as a sin he feels the church should do more to address. He has also written extensively on the church's opposition to the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide.
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., was elected vice president, which puts him next in line for the presidency in 2004. Skylstad defeated Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis in a runoff, 141-110.
The 67-year-old Skylstad, a native of Omak, Wash., has led the Spokane diocese since 1990. He has served as conference liaison to Catholic Charities USA and is a member of bishops' committees on social justice and interreligious affairs.
The election comes during a four-day meeting in which the bishops are reviewing their position on the war on terrorism, acknowledging in a draft document a moral right to a military defense but warning that force alone is not the answer.
The authors of the proposed statement took pains to say that nothing justifies terrorism. Still, they argued that poverty, violence and human rights abuses, if not addressed, generate resentment that terrorists can exploit.
The proclamation urges U.S. leaders to redefine foreign policy to make alleviating global suffering a priority, and recommends lifting economic sanctions against Iraq and helping to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also asks national leaders to develop criteria for when the airstrikes on Afghanistan should end.
The bishops will vote on the proclamation by the end of their meeting Thursday.