In a surprising result that upends tradition, the Catholic bishops of the United States have rejected a bishop who was favored to win election to a three-year term as leader of the American hierarchy and instead chose New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
The defeat of Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who had been vice-president of the conference and therefore expected to become the next president by longstanding tradition, was chalked up at least in part to a last-minute campaign by conservative Catholic activists who resurrected charges that Kicanas ignored indications of sexual problems by a seminarian who was later ordained and became a notorious child abuser.
Conservatives also dislike Kicanas' reputation as a moderate who favors dialogue and persuasion over the more bully pulpit pronouncements of churchmen like Chicago Cardinal Francis George, the outgoing president, or Dolan, a media-friendly but outspoken figure who became head of the New York archdiocese only last year.
Some observers suspect the charges about Kicanas' connection to a priest who later became an abuser were cover for the conservatives' main goal of thwarting the ascension of a progressive to the top spot; since the contemporary structure of the bishops conference was established in the 1960s, no sitting vice-president has ever been passed over for promotion to the presidency of the bishops -- until now.
Dolan defeated Kicanas by a vote of 128-111 on the third ballot as the bishops met in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting, with officer elections one of their chief tasks. At their elections three years ago, Kicanas defeated Dolan -- who then was archbishop of Milwaukee -- by 22 votes in the race for vice-president 128-106, so Tuesday's result could be seen as a re-thinking by the bishops. Still, it was highly unusual.
"Not to elect Kicanas would be an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions," Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit at Georgetown University and a highly respected observer of church politics, wrote on the eve of the vote.
In a piece for The Washington Post
, Reese said he fully expected Kicanas to win, and he sketched Kicanas' reputation as a church moderate rather than a "culture warrior" that some bishops would prefer. In an interview
with Politics Daily last fall, Kicanas also said his priority was to try to unite the bishops, who have often been split over political and social issues.
But Kicanas' centrist reputation likely did not help. He was one of the few bishops who gave Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt when the iconic Catholic university invited President Obama to give the commencement address in May 2009 -- an invitation that sparked an outpouring of anger from many bishops, who strongly opposed the pro-choice Obama and blasted Notre Dame for honoring him.
And on Monday, the day before the vote, an organization of gay Catholics endorsed Kicanas, saying they expected his open style would signal an eventual softening of his opposition to gay marriage. That endorsement
flew around the Catholic blogosphere and was hardly the kind of support likely to boost a bishop's electoral chances.
In the end, Reese said Tuesday, the bishops' vote "signaled that they are going to continue their conservative tilt in both the church and American politics."
"The bishops' conference has been radically changed by the bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II," he added. "This is not going to change in the foreseeable future."
Conservatives, on the other hand, welcomed the defeat of Kicanas and the election of Dolan.
"[U]nusually good news," said Jeff Mirius, head of the conservative website, CatholicCulture.org. "I'm ashamed because it took so long for something like this to happen, so long for the bishops to break out of the traditions of the club."
"What a splendid choice!" said William Donohue
, head of the Catholic League. "Archbishop Dolan possesses all the right skills to lead the bishops' conference: he is brilliant, courageous and diplomatic. He'll get the job done and will not disappoint practicing Catholics who are loyal to the Magisterium," which is the body of official church teaching.
Beyond the internal church politics, renewed questions about Kicanas' role in the case of Daniel McCormack, the priest who was defrocked in 2007 when charges against him came to light, probably helped changed the dynamic at the last minute.
Kicanas was head of the main seminary in Chicago in the 1990s when McCormack was a studying to be a priest. Kicanas says McCormack at one point told him of two sexual encounters he'd had with other adults before coming to the seminary, and Kicanas sent him for counseling on his readiness for celibacy and for an apparent penchant for drinking too much.
McCormack was ordained in 1994 and sent into ministry, and in 2001 Kicanas was named bishop of the Tucson diocese. Kicanas later said that if he'd known about McCormack's tendency to abuse children -- which occurred after he was ordained -- he never would have allowed him to become a priest.
Interestingly, the churchman whose reputation was most tainted by McCormack's abuses was Kicanas' boss, Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago.
That's because after George began receiving complaints that McCormack was abusing children, starting in about 2003, he did not removed him from ministry, as his own archdiocesan guidelines demanded, as well as those of the national "zero-tolerance" policies that the bishops adopted in 2002 after a wave of scandals rocked the church. George's independent review board of lay people and experts also wrote to him in October 2005, saying McCormack should be removed from ministry. But Cardinal George allowed the priest to stay in ministry until January 2006. In that time he allegedly abused at least four more boys, and he was finally sent to jail, serving a 2½-year term.
Despite the scandal
, George, who is a favorite among conservative Catholics, was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2007, with no objection from Catholics on the right.
Not so Kicanas. Earlier this month, right-wing Catholic bloggers started to raise questions about Kicanas' record, and last week Tim Drake of the National Catholic Register -- a conservative publication owned by the Legion of Christ, a Catholic order plagued by revelations of terrible sexual and financial abuses by its late founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado -- wrote an essay
calling for the bishops to reject Kicanas.
That article fueled much of the anti-Kicanas campaign, and Kicanas was forced to respond with in an interview
with Drake, setting out his role in the McCormack episode and denying allegations made about his involvement.
"I would never defend endorsing McCormack's ordination if I had had any knowledge or concern that he might be a danger to anyone, and I had no such knowledge or concern," Kicanas said. "At no time while McCormack was a seminarian at Mundelein did I receive any allegation of pedophilia or child molestation against him. I never received any allegation, report or concern about McCormack during his seminary years at Mundelein that involved sexual abuse of anyone.
"Furthermore," he continued, "McCormack was evaluated, as was every seminarian, each of his four years by faculty and students who were given the opportunity to endorse or not endorse his continuing in the seminary. No student, nor faculty, nor anyone, ever negatively commented on McCormack in all the endorsements he received. With the harm that he has done to children and to families, it is tragic that he was ordained."
That apparently wasn't enough to mollify the concerns of many bishops that the charges would dog Kicanas if he were elected president, and the criticism likely emboldened Kicanas' conservative foes.
Kicanas garnered 104 votes on the first ballot, and Dolan tallied 84, with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in third with 20 out of a list of 10 candidates. Because Kicanas did not have an outright majority, they went to a second ballot, and Dolan took the lead by 118 votes to 111. That was still just shy of a majority, and on the third ballot Dolan won with 128 votes.
The bishops then elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville as vice-president over Chaput, and Kurtz thus becomes the presumptive president in three years' time if the bishops return to tradition in 2013.
Kurtz is a leader in the bishops' campaign against gay marriage, and so with he and Dolan as the public face of the bishops conference, the hierarchy will likely continue to have a prominent role in political and cultural debates, with a distinctly rightward tilt.
At a news conference after the vote, Dolan appeared relaxed and jovial as ever, and he dismissed any suggestions that the bishops were influenced by conservatives to reject Kicanas.
"Bishops usually bristle if they feel any undue pressure from outside," Dolan said. "We take our autonomy very seriously." He added that bishops also don't like to feel locked in by tradition, and that the race with Kicanas was "not a landslide," so there was nothing "deeper or more mysterious" to it than that.
Dolan said he didn't expect to bring any new agenda to the leadership of the U.S. hierarchy, but acknowledged he might have a different, more public style than Kicanas. "Things are going well," Dolan said of the American bishops and their efforts.
He did say the bishops would continue to be involved in political issues, as they always have, but he rejected any suggestions that they would help Republicans more than Democrats, as many have seen them doing in debates over health care, for example.
"The bishops of the United States are not partisans, they're pastors," he said.
But Reese noted that the bishops have been skewing their priorities away from social justice issues and more toward the battle against abortion and gay marriage, so Dolan's pledge to stay the course could be signal a watershed for the bishops, who for much of American history were known for that fight on behalf of the working classes and the underprivileged.
"What is most remarkable about this meeting is that it took place in the middle of the most devastating economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the bishops said nothing about it," Reese noted. "It was as if they did not know that almost 10 percent of their parishioners are unemployed, that the new Congress is going to take aim at programs helping the poor and that now is the time to speak out for social justice. Their silence was deafening."
The election of Dolan immediately makes him the most prominent and potentially powerful churchman in the U.S. hierarchy. That is unusual, as bishops have in general preferred not to give so much influence to any one of their number and tend to elect bishops from smaller diocese to be their president. The election of George was anomaly in that sense, though perhaps the traditions are changing as the bishops feel they need a more active spokesman at the helm.
Dolan is also much more media-savvy than George, who is an intellectual who tends to deliver speeches rather than sound bites.
Not so Dolan, an inveterate joker as well as culture warrior who, true to form, reacted to his election by claiming he won because he promised his fellow bishops Dunkin Donuts for their morning coffee breaks and Häagen-Dazs ice cream for afternoons.
"It is a humbling moment," Dolan added in an interview with a Catholic television network. "I've got to be honest, it was unexpected."
Kicanas released a statement saying his time as vice-president "has been a marvelous experience."
"I respect the wisdom of my brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president," he said. "I greatly appreciated their expressions of thanks to me for my service as vice president. Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a longtime friend since our seminary work together. I know of his great wit, jovial spirit, keen ability to relate to people in a deeply personal way and his exceptional leadership qualities. These will certainly serve the Conference well as he begins his term as president."
Dolan formally takes the reins as president on Thursday, the final day of the fall meeting, and then he heads straight to Rome where two dozen bishops will be made cardinal
s by Pope Benedict.