U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen a New York prelate to lead their organization for the next three years. The move is an unexpected defeat for an Arizona bishop under fire for his links to an imprisoned Chicago child molester.
At a meeting Tuesday in Baltimore, the bishops elected New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a St. Louis native, as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan’s victory is the first time in decades the nation’s bishops have passed over a sitting vice president for their top post.
That vice president, Tuscon Bishop Gerald Kicanas, once served as rector of a Chicago archdiocese seminary in northwest suburban Mundelein. In that post, Kicanas heard about three instances of alleged sexual misconduct by a student named Daniel McCormack.
The nature of those incidents is murky. An archdiocese-commissioned report describes one as “sexual abuse of a minor” and says they occurred when McCormack attended a nearby seminary college—before he arrived in Mundelein.
Kicanas approved McCormack’s 1994 ordination. As a Chicago priest, McCormack sexually abused more than a dozen boys. Cardinal Francis George had started receiving allegations about the abuse by September 2005 but didn’t pull McCormack out of the ministry until Chicago police arrested the priest in January 2006. The roles of Kicanas and George, the outgoing USCCB president, were the subject of a WBEZ report last month.
The National Catholic Register last week pressed Kicanas for his reactions to the report. A written response from the bishop said revelations about the three alleged sexual-misconduct incidents led to a church evaluation of McCormack. He said the evaluation sought “to determine if he could live a celibate life and if there was any concern about his affective maturity.”
The evaluation found that McCormack’s alleged misconduct was “experimental and developmental,” Kicanas added. “I would never defend endorsing McCormack’s ordination if I had had any knowledge or concern that he might be a danger to anyone.”
On Sunday morning some victims of priest sexual abuse led a Chicago protest against Kicanas, warning that it would be a mistake for U.S. bishops to elect him. Some conservative Catholic bloggers, meanwhile, seized on the controversy and cited additional reasons to oppose Kicanas. They said he wouldn’t uphold many Catholic teachings strictly enough.
Kicanas, 69, has pushed for dialogue between the church’s liberal and conservative wings. In Arizona, the bishop has spoken against abortion and gay marriage but hasn’t denied communion to politicians who favor abortion rights. On immigration, Kicanas has sided against a tough new Arizona law and pushed for a federal overhaul that would include a legalization of undocumented residents. Kicanas promoted “comprehensive immigration reform” as recently as Friday, when he gave the keynote speech at a church conference in Hammond, Indiana, just southeast of Chicago.
Dolan, 60, appeals to many Catholic conservatives as a more aggressive defender of church orthodoxy. Last year, he signed a statement that united leading evangelicals and Catholics against abortion and gay marriage.
The Vatican installed Dolan as New York archbishop last year. He had spent almost seven years as archbishop of Milwaukee.
In Baltimore, where the bishops are holding their annual fall meeting, Dolan beat Kicanas in the third round of voting, 128-111. Dolan will replace Cardinal George as president this week. In another win for conservatives, the bishops elected Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to take Kicanas’ place as their vice president.
An expert on the U.S. bishops says it’s hard to know whether the latest McCormack flare-up shifted votes against the Tuscon bishop. “Clearly Kicanas was being attacked and accused of making bad decisions when he was rector of the seminary,” says Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “On the other hand, Dolan has also been criticized by victims of sexual abuse.”
In August, according to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Dolan “quietly, recklessly and deceptively” let a priest resign from his Harlem parish without mentioning that “at least nine men” had accused the priest of sexually abusing them as children.
But a SNAP statement applauds Tuesday’s defeat of Kicanas: “We can hope that his shocking defeat will help deter future clergy sex crimes and coverups by the Catholic hierarchy.”
The USCCB has no formal authority over bishops but helps them promote Catholic teachings and coordinate positions on national issues such as marriage, immigration and health care. The organization has also formed policies to protect children from sexually abusive priests and other adults.