UPDATE: Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas has responded to media reports of what he did and didn’t know regarding Daniel McCormack. Bishop Kicanas’ interview can be found here.
When the U.S. Bishops gather in Baltimore next week they’ll be tackling a host of pastoral and social issues, but perhaps the most important thing they’ll do is to choose whom among them will lead them as a body over the next three years. Who will set the tone, and be the public face and voice for the country’s bishops?
The big story next week will be, who shall lead them?
As a hierarchical body, the Catholic Church doesn’t often have elections, but when it does, they’re important.
If the USCCB goes with reigning practice, they’ll choose current vice president Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. His selection, however, is not a foregone conclusion. There are a host of other names included among those being considered, such as: Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans; Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif.; Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM, Cap., of Denver; Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.; Bishop George Murry, SJ, of Youngstown, Oh.; Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore; Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit; and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City.
Whether or not Bishop Kicanas is elected, will be next week’s story. If he isn’t elected, the story will be why the bishops parted with recent practice. If he is elected, the story will be how the bishops treat their own, and the message the bishops are sending to society about their willingness to prevent sexual abuse. If Bishop Kicanas is elected it’s likely to strain the USCCB’s credibility.
The bishops, and their spokesmen, can repeat over and over that this gathering is not about the sexual abuse crisis, but if the media makes it about sexual abuse - and one can be sure that it will - then whether or not it’s on the official agenda, it will be the topic foremost on the minds of American Catholics.
To give some indication of what’s likely to follow Bishop Kicanas’ election, one only has to look at a couple of stories that have already been reported – one from Spero News, and the other from WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio. Bishop Kicanas’ election is a potential powder keg.
In his story, “Sex Abuse Lurks Behind Catholic Election,” Chip Mitchell tells the horrific story of Father Daniel McCormack, who molested at least 23 boys. The story demonstrates that Bishop Kicanas, while rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, was aware of accusations of sexual misconduct against McCormack, but chose to ordain him anyway.
Asked about it, Bishop Kicanas essentially said that he would do it again.
“It would have been grossly unfair not to have ordained him,” Bishop Kicanas said shortly after being elected as vice president of the USCCB, in a quote that appears in the deposition of Cardinal Francis George. “There was a sense that his activity was part of the developmental process and that he had learned from the experience,” continued Bishop Kicanas. “I was more concerned about his drinking. We sent him to counseling for that.”
The Spero story goes even further. In “Catholic Bishops to Elect Enabler of Child Molester as National Leader,” writer Mary Ann Kreitzer goes so far as to say that Bishop Kicanas’ election is “fitting” for what she describes as that “vile bureaucracy.”
The blog Boston Catholic Insider has actually issued a “Red Alert” asking readers to contact their local ordinaries to respectfully ask them to vote for a candidate other than Bishop Kicanas.
If these are the stories that have been written prior to the election, what can we expect following the election, and for the next three years?
While the bishops may not have a good mechanism for fraternal correction within their ranks, one mechanism that bishops do have a great deal of control over is whom they elect as their leader.
There’s been speculation that there’s an unspoken practice that the election of the body’s president follows an alternating pattern, as if the body were somehow trying to balance two wings of parliament.
The Church, however, is not parliament.
If there is some unspoken rule, it’s one that should be dismissed. The words “liberal” or “conservative”, “progressive” or “orthodox” cannot truly describe the Church or those in it. If such a practice is taking place with the election of the USCCB’s president, it must be rejected, embracing instead presiding USCCB president Cardinal Francis George’s “simply Catholicism.”
When the bishops gather next week, they have an opportunity to show that elections do matter. It would be best if they met behind closed doors and outside the purview of the media, held an honest conversation not about the voting practice of the previous era, but about who is the best person to lead the brotherhood of bishops at this time and place, and then voted accordingly.