In what can only be described as an upset, N.Y. Archbishop Tim Dolan has been elected the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, defeating Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. According to past practice, as U.S.C.C.B. vice president Bishop Kicanas should have advanced to the presidency following the end of the term of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. An 11th hour controversy raised questions about Bishop Kicanas' role in the ordination of a Chicago priest who was later arrested on charges of child molestation. In recent days Bishop Kicanis was forced to respond to a flurry of press reports which suggested that as the rector of Illinois' Mundelein Seminary in the 1990s, he should have taken stronger action against Mundelein seminarian Daniel McCormack. After his ordination, McCormack served in the Chicago archdiocese and was ultimately arrested for a series of sexual assaults on children.
Bishop Kicanas had strongly denied mishandling McCormack as a seminarian. He has nevertheless been under attack from the membership of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which urged his defeat and has been the subject of e-mail and fax campaigns launched by conservative Catholic bloggers.
It took three rounds of voting before Dolan was elected, 128 to 111. "Unusual but not unheard of," said Jesuit Father Tom Reese.
According to Reese, this is the first time a U.S.C.C.B. vice president was on the ballot and lost the election for the three year term as president. Kicanas was widely believed to offer a more pastoral approach to the role of U.S.C.C.B. president, but he has been criticized from conservative Catholics for not being enough of a hardliner on social issues and for taking a more conciliatory approach to pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Dolan will take office this Thursday, Nov. 18 for a three-year term. Elected vice president was Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who won in another third-ballot runoff, 147-91, over Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. of Denver. Notable about this vote, according to Reese, was the fact that the final candidates were both conservatives. It was not a question of bishops choosing between a moderate and a conservative, said Reese.
The two votes suggest the the U.S.C.C.B. will continue to take a vibrant role in U.S. culture wars. Should pro-choice Catholic politicians be scared? "Yes," was Reese's emphatic response. Reese said the vote should also figure in a much more conservative voice in the writing of the Faithful Citizenship statement which will help guide Catholic voters in the 2012 election.
The vote perhaps indicates the coming of age of conservative appointments made by Pope John Paul II. Reese marveled at Kicanas' loss. "This just suggests how conservative the [U.S.C.C.B.] is becoming. I mean [Kicanas] was no left wing candidate. He supported a ban on gay marriage in Arizona," Reese said.
Archbishop Dolan said he was surprised by the vote. "You don't run for office," he said, explaining he has been more focused on running his New York archdiocese and his work for Catholic Relief Services. The field for president included ten candidates.
Fred Allison, the communications director for the Diocese of Tucson, was unsure what role the campaign against Bishop Kicanas played in his defeat for US.C.C.B. president. He said Bishop Kicanas' candidacy had been attacked in spam e-mail sent to bishops and described reports from within the Catholic blogosphere accusing him of mishandling abuse cases as "patently absurd given his record in Tucson."
He said the bishop had been willing to leave his fate to his brother bishops. "If called to serve as president, he said he would be happy to serve, but if not, he told me he would be really happy to be go back to the work of the diocese."
--Reporting from Baltimore, Md.