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The US bishops' shocking vote: no more 'business as usual'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 16, 2010

The election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president of the US bishops’ conference might be regarded, years from now, as a watershed moment in the long campaign to restore the credibility of the American hierarchy.

The “business as usual” approach pointed clearly toward the election of Bishop Gerald Kicanas. In every previous election, if a sitting vice-president was a candidate, he was duly elected to the presidency of the US bishops’ conference. Ordinarily, when the bishops elect a new slate of officers for their conference, observers watch the voting for the vice-presidency more carefully, since by selecting a prelate for the #2 position, the conference is virtually assuring that he will succeed to the presidency three years later. So Bishop Kicanas, after his turn as vice-president, was the odds-on favorite for the top spot. As late as a week ago, the result seemed a foregone conclusion.

However, there was one major problem with the Kicanas candidacy. Years ago, while serving as a seminary rector in Chicago, he had approved the ordination of Daniel McCormack, who would go on to become the most notorious clerical molester in that archdiocese. As the expected ascent of Bishop Kicanas to the USCCB presidency approached, the bishop’s unhappy connection with the McCormack case drew new scrutiny—first from a Chicago radio station, then from Tim Drake of the National Catholic Register, and finally from groups representing abuse victims. From very different angles, these observers raised the same question: How could a bishop with that sort of blot on his career record be a credible spokesman for the US bishops’ conference—which is still recovering from the devastating impact of the sex-abuse scandal?

Bishop Kicanas defended his handling of the case, arguing that at the time he approved McCormack for ordination, he had no evidence to indicate that the young man would become a molester. But the bishop’s argument was unsatisfactory in two respects.

First, there were multiple reports that McCormack had homosexual encounters before and during his days in the seminary. Personnel files in the Chicago archdiocese have yielded abundant evidence that McCormack had a history of homosexual behavior, and some of his reported actions could easily have been classified as abusive, even if they did not involve children. It strains credulity that the seminary rector would not have recognized, at a bare minimum, that this young man had serious problems.

Second, while he acknowledged evidence of homosexual activity in McCormack’s case, Bishop Kicanas said that he concluded that activity was “experimental and developmental,” and therefore not a threat to a future in priestly ministry. His argument downplayed both the moral gravity of homosexual acts and the psychological implications of a serious disorder. As rector the future bishop was worried about McCormack’s alcohol use, and rightly so. But he was apparently not worried about this seminarian’s homosexual flirtations—if, indeed, they were nothing more. Those were easily dismissed as “experimental and developmental.” Other observers could not dismiss them so lightly, and so they could not accept the bishop’s argument that he was blameless.

Perhaps more importantly, Bishop Kicanas showed no indication whatsoever that he has sought to learn from what was obviously a serious mistake. To this day he argues that there was no reason to question McCormack’s fitness for the priesthood. His decision to allow the man’s ordination was one problem, now fading into the distant past. But his refusal to recognize the source of his mistake—to take the problem of homosexuality seriously, and to see at least the possibility of a link between aberrant sexuality and abuse, was a problem today—a problem for his candidacy to become the public voice of the American hierarchy.

When the time came to cast their ballots, the US bishops faced a dilemma. If they elected any candidate other than Bishop Kicanas, they would be breaking a long precedent and exposing divisions within their conference. But if they chose Bishop Kicanas they would be exposing themselves to a new round of heated public criticism—to the charge that even after a decade of uproar they still do not understand the gravity of their mishandling of the sex-abuse crisis.

A vote against Kicanas would have provoked comment and controversy. But a vote for Kicanas would provoke comment and controversy as well. So, since comment and controversy were inevitable in any case, the American bishops voted for the man they considered best equipped to lead their conference. 

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Nov. 17, 2010 11:32 AM ET USA

    Isn't it sad though that we rejoice over a vote which was good but a long way from dealing with the malaise in the Church. The bishops must confront dissent in church-structures; they must confront the pro-abort Catholic pols with more than words otherwise the teaching of Vat II that abortion is an unspeakable crime is simply undermined; they must confront the homosexual ideology within the Church. Otherwise this vote will mean little. It will be more of the same with some window dressing.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Nov. 17, 2010 11:32 AM ET USA

    This is the very first sign that I have seen that the Bishops "get it" and they are starting to grow a spine. It is a tiny step. I hope they continue on this path .

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 17, 2010 11:04 AM ET USA

    Forgive me for some skepticism on my part. Odds are that many votes were cast in fear of the laity. Vox populi, vox Dei.

  • Posted by: HKS - Nov. 16, 2010 10:56 PM ET USA

    Thank God the bishops had the courage to make this decision. It is a true sign of hope for the American Church.

  • Posted by: MWPapabear8555 - Nov. 16, 2010 10:47 PM ET USA

    The election should be looked at in one direction: going forward. Elevating Bishop Kincanas, right or wrong, would have invited continued controversy. Archbishop Dolan, is a great spirit & giant heart involved in CRS, & CNEWA (great organizations BTW) & his tremendous, on the ground, Haiti relief efforts were nothing less than inspiring. All were good candidates, yet I'm excited to be led in this great evangalizing & unifying effort by Archbishop Dolan! Take heart, America, & hang on!

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