Sex abuse, leadership styles at debate during election among U.S. catholic bishops

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 2:31 PM

With the midterm elections now over, the Catholic world is gearing up for an election of its own as U.S. bishops gather in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday to choose their next president and vice president. And this year's election at the U.S. Conference of Bishops has plenty of intrigue, last-minute maneuvers and internal politics of its own.

The leading candidate to become president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, has been the subject of a barrage of last-minute criticism in recent days over how he dealt with a priest who was accused of molesting more than a dozen boys and is now in jail.

Victim advocates at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have heavily criticized Kicanas, saying in a statement that his election as president "would send a hurtful message to victims and Catholics."

Kicanas is currently vice president of the bishops conference, which in the past has almost always led to being elected to the top post of the governing body for U.S. Catholics.

"It would take something absolutely extraordinary for him not to get elected," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a scholar at Georgetown University. "The only times a vice president in the past wasn't made president have been one case where the vice president simply died on the job and another who was too old and would have had to retire halfway through."

But Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo, who has spoken to many bishops leading up to the Baltimore conference, says Kicanas's election is not a sure thing. There's a lot more behind the controversy over Kicanas than his handling of one sexual abuse case, he said. Much of the criticism against Kicanas, for example, has been generated from relatively conservative voices within the Catholic world, Palmo and others have noted, who may be using the sexual abuse case to mount a challenge against Kicanas, who is viewed as a moderate.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Kicanas is the case of Daniel McCormack, a now-defrocked priest who has pleaded guilty to sexual abuse. Kicanas was rector of a seminary in Illinois attended by McCormack.

In interviews in past years, Kicanas has said he knew of some sexual misconduct by McCormack, but he and others did due diligence and there was nothing he could have done differently. In recent weeks, however, Kicanas has said that he was misquoted and that he knew of instances where McCormack was sexually active and dealt with those accordingly, but knew of no allegations at the time of child molestation.

Many have noted that the current president of the conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, also was heavily involved in the McCormack case but was elected with little fuss three years ago.

"There's a lot of talk about why the case is only now becoming a controversy around Kicanas, and what's fueling it," Reese said. Kicanas made his mark in Tucson for the way he has led the diocese, which was devastated by bankruptcy and the aftermath of sex abuse cases.

"If he's elected, that could have interesting implications for immigration reform, which is a high priority for him in Arizona and something he's been a loud advocate for," Reese said.

Notable among the candidates viewed as possible competition to Kicanas is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who has attracted his own share of controversy in recent years.

Dolan is mentioned as someone who could either upset Kicanas for president or win the vice president spot - which he narrowly lost to Kicanas three years ago. But since then, Dolan has been appointed archbishop of New York and the conference often is wary of giving too much power to any one member and may be reluctant to give him another leading role, observers said.

Candidates like Dolan, who has been an outspoken and bold voice on a range of issues, also represent a stylistic choice faced by the conference this year. For example, George spent much of his last speech as president Monday defending the bishops' controversial stance against federal healthcare legislation. George said the stance may have hurt unity among Catholics who disagree, but that in the end it is only bishops can speak for the church.

"It's a polarized conference this year, but not so much in terms of substance of issues, but in style, how the conference ought to express those views," Palmo said.

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