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Hispanic immigrant in line to lead US Catholic bishops
(Patrick Semansky / AP)

Clergy sex abuse is once again on the agenda as U.S. Catholic bishops meet this week — but so is a potentially historic milestone: Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, an immigrant from Mexico, is widely expected to win election as the first Hispanic president of the bishops' national conference.

Gomez, 67, is currently the conference's vice president — a post that by tradition serves as springboard to the presidency. In terms of doctrine, Gomez is considered a practical-minded conservative, but he is an outspoken advocate of a welcoming immigration policy that would include a path to citizenship for many immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

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In August, after a gunman targeting Mexicans killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Gomez wrote a powerful blog post condemning white supremacy and noting that Spanish was spoken in North America before English was.

"Men and women do not become less than human, less a child of God, because they are 'undocumented,'" Gomez wrote. "Yet, in our nation, it has become common to hear migrants talked about and treated as if they are somehow beneath caring about. "

The three-day meeting, opening on Monday, will mark the end of the three-year presidential term of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston.

At the two most recent national assemblies that DiNardo presided over, the church's persisting clergy sex-abuse crisis — and the often tentative response to it — dominated the proceedings. At this week's assembly, the topic may surface only occasionally — for example in a scheduled update on establishing a nationwide, third-party reporting system for abuse or misconduct by bishops.

Also on the agenda are proposed changes in the process of "priestly formation" — the preparation of seminarians to become ordained priests. In recent years, amid the sex-abuse crisis, there has been increased focus on psychological evaluations of seminary applicants and students to reduce the likelihood of ordaining priests who would be prone to sexual misconduct.

The bishops also are expected to authorize development of a "comprehensive vision" for Hispanic/Latino ministry, to be completed over the next few years. While Hispanics account for about 37% of all U.S. Catholics, they are no longer a majority-Catholic group, according to the Pew Research Center; a recent Pew survey said 47% of Hispanics in the U.S. now call themselves Catholic, down from 57% in 2009.

In addition to electing a new president the bishops will be choosing a vice president, and thus the bishop in line to eventually assume the presidency. There are nine other nominees to take the post of vice president.

Some of the nominees are popular among militantly conservative Catholics — such as San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. Others, such as Archbishops Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, also are conservatives but less eager to engage in the so-called culture wars.

Three prominent figures who are viewed as relatively progressive, and as allies of Pope Francis, are not among the nominees: Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.

McElroy attracted attention on social media with a powerful speech Wednesday in San Antonio, in which he decried a "bunker mentality" pervading Catholic leadership in the U.S.

"'In great part, this bunker mentality has arisen because of the pervasive failure of the church and its leaders to recognize the enormity of the crime of clergy sexual abuse," he said.

The Baltimore meeting takes place against the backdrop of a Vatican investigation into Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, who is under fire for his handling of sexual misconduct. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who headed the inquiry, said on Oct. 31 that he had concluded his work and submitted a report to the Vatican.

Coincidentally, Malone and other New York bishops will be making an official visit to the Vatican this week as their colleagues convene in Baltimore. Other U.S. bishops, as part of regional groups, will be making similar visits to Rome over the next few months.

Another bishop who won't be present in Baltimore is Michael Bransfield, who resigned in September as head of West Virginia's Wheeling-Charleston diocese while facing multiple allegations of financial and sexual misconduct. Bransfield's successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, initiated a process by which Bransfield was formally "disinvited" from the Baltimore meeting.

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