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New York prelate to lead bishops group

By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; A02

America's Catholic bishops pulled a shocker Tuesday in picking their new president, disregarding tradition and precedent by rejecting the current vice president and instead choosing a man seen as more outspoken and conservative.

Voting 128 to 111, the U.S. Conference of Bishops picked New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who heads one of the nation's most prominent dioceses, to be its president for the next three years.

He defeated Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who had been vice president and had faced 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 spoke out against Kicanas, but the more significant opposition came from conservatives, who considered him too moderate in tone.

The election heralded a desire in the conference - the highest governing body of the U.S. Catholic Church - for more aggressive, outspoken leadership on hot-button social issues, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a scholar at Georgetown University.

"It signals that this is a very conservative body that's going to continue to play a major role in this country's culture wars," Reese said.

The contest for vice president came down to two relatively conservative bishops, Reese noted. And Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, who ultimately won the post, is the leader of the bishops' ad hoc committee to strengthen traditional marriage and oppose gay marriage.

"It's a doubling down on efforts like opposing same-sex marriage," said Rocco Palmo, a Catholic blogger and close follower of the bishops conference.

"With Dolan, just by his personality and by his position in New York, he's going to be able to multiply that kind of outspokenness by a factor of 10," Palmo said.

But at a news conference Tuesday, both Dolan and Kurtz declined to interpret their election as coming with a clear message. "I don't think we bishops sit around thinking about that," Dolan said, adding that the approach and style of bishops shouldn't be reduced to labels like traditional or progressive.

"The bishops of the United States are not partisans, they're pastors," he said.

Dolan, however, also acknowledged the unprecedented nature of his election, which he said came as a surprise even to him.

"I think bishops don't like the idea of anyone to be a shoo-in," he said, referring to the traditional elevation of vice presidents in the past.

He said he planned to continue the work of his predecessor as president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Dolan mentioned George's strong stance during this year's health-care debate in opposition to federal funding for abortion.

Dolan comes in with experience serving in Rome as rector of the Pontifical North American College. He also has written a book, "Priests for the Third Millennium," that has been influential among clergy.

Both Kicanas and Dolan are superb men, said Bishop Carlos Sevilla of Yakima, Wash., but what may have helped elevate Dolan is the natural advantages of the New York Archdiocese.

"He's at the center of the news capital of our nation, which gives him a wide access for contacts and organization," Sevilla said. "Tucson is a much smaller place, and that may have been on people's minds as well."

At Tuesday's news conference, Kurtz said he saw his election to vice president as possibly related to his work to strengthen marriage and oppose same-sex marriage, saying it pointed to a commitment toward that cause throughout the body of bishops.

It was the first time a vice president who had appeared on the ballot wasn't elevated to president of the conference.

boorsteinm@washpost.com wanw@washpost.com

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