Next week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will elect its next president. According to custom, the current vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson--considered a Bernardin bishop and therefore more liberal--will likely win the presidency. That has some Catholic conservatives up in arms, such as Tim Drake, of the Legion of Christ-owned National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. Citing articles posted to the Web site of WBEZ (Chicago's NPR affiliate), the conservative news outlet Spero News, and a Boston-based Catholic blog, Drake argues that Kicanas is unfit for the office of USCCB president because of his role in the tragic case of the admitted molester Daniel McCormack, now laicized and jailed (I wrote about him here):

If he isnt 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.

Kicanas was rector of Mundelein seminary when McCormack studied there. A 2006 diocesan audit found that in 1992, Mundelein officials learned of three accusations of misconduct against McCormack, two from adult seminary classmates (one from McCormack's previous seminary, then called Niles College), and one reportedly from a minor in Mexico. The records of those allegations, along with their details, were never found. Two years later, McCormack was ordained.

In 2007, Kicanas told was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times saying that he was aware of three allegations of "sexual improprieties" against McCormack, but that they were not "credible," therefore it would have been unjust to deny him ordination. "There was a sense that his activity was part of the developmental process and that he had learned from the experience," Kicanas reportedly said. explained. The story said he was "more concerned" about McCormack's drinking problem. "We sent him to counseling for that." Finally, the article reported that Kicanas disagreed that McCormack never should have been ordained: "I dont think there was anything I could have done differently." (See update below.)

It's that last quote that Drake believes disqualifies Kicanas. The Spero News op-ed is titled, "Catholic Bishops to Elect Enabler of Child Molester as National Leader," and, according to Drake, "If Bishop Kicanas is elected its likely to strain the USCCBs credibility." Perhaps. But, just as I haven't seen many liberal Catholic outlets complaining about the ascension of Kicanas to the USCCB presidency, I don't recall reading any stories in the National Catholic Register or Zenit warning the U.S. bishops that electing Cardinal Francis George as their president in 2007 would have dire consequences for the credibility of the USCCB (the Spero op-ed Drake links to does refer to George's role in the McCormack case). Which is strange, because in October '05, Cardinal George's own sexual-abuse review board recommended removing McCormack from ministry, and the cardinal refused to do so. McCormack wasn't removed from ministry until January '06. As victims attorney Marc Pearlman told NPR, "I just don't many kids were abused between the fall of 2005 and January of 2006, when he was finally removed."

Two subsequent audits of archdiocesan sexual-abuse policies revealed a system replete with appalling and obvious shortcomings. What's amazing is that more abusive priests didn't fall through its cracks. One audit found that archdiocesan officials had likely broken Illinois law by failing to report and investigate a 2003 allegation against McCormack. The same audit judged the archdiocese in violation of the USCCB's own sexual-abuse policies, adopted in '02.

I won't defend Kicanas's reported claim that there was nothing he could have done differently in the McCormack case. Now we know he had a serial child molester for a seminarian. Obviously, not ordaining McCormack would have been better; but would it have stopped him from abusing? Do we know enough about what Kicanas knew to call him an "enabler"? Did Mundelein officials "enable" McCormack's crimes any more than George's decision not to follow the advice of his sexual-abuse review board? In other words, if Kicanas's critics really believe his election to the presidency of the USCCB will strain the bishops' credibility, after George's election, what do they think is left of it?

Update: The Register has posted a response from Bishop Kicanas in which he corrects the quotes attributed to him in the Sun-Times story I mention above (read the whole thing). It's full of important clarifications. Key passages:

I would never defend endorsing McCormacks ordination if I had had any knowledge or concern that he might be a danger to anyone, and I had no such knowledge or concern. At no time while McCormack was a seminarian at Mundelein did I receive any allegation of pedophilia or child molestation against him. I never received any allegation, report or concern about McCormack during his seminary years at Mundelein that involved sexual abuse of anyone. Prior to ordination, each students readiness for ordination was discussed at length by seminary administrators, faculty, and the diocesan bishop. Furthermore, McCormack was evaluated, as was every seminarian, each of his four years by faculty and students who were given the opportunity to endorse or not endorse his continuing in the seminary. No student, nor faculty, nor anyone, ever negatively commented on McCormack in all the endorsements he received. With the harm that he has done to children and to families, it is tragic that he was ordained. Would that he had never been ordained.(...)

McCormick was in the seminary for 12 years before ordination. At the high school and college seminary, no concerns, to my knowledge, were ever raised about him. From all reports, he was a good student, a good athlete and was most cooperative.

While McCormack was at Mundelein, a student commented to his counselor that when they were in Mexico studying Spanish, McCormick had been in a bar where they had been drinking and that as they were leaving the bar, McCormack had in public patted a person on the behind over clothing. When the counselor reported that to us, McCormack was called in and was asked to give an explanation. His explanation was exactly as was reported to the counselor by the other seminarian. Neither account indicated any sexual act or intention.

In the course of that discussion, McCormack revealed that while at the college several years before he had had two consensual sexual experiences with peers while they were drinking. He assured us that he had worked this through with his spiritual director and that he wanted to live a celibate life.

Nevertheless, because of the seriousness of his admission about behavior that had occurred in his past, he was sent for extensive evaluation to determine if he could live a celibate life and if there was any concern about his affective maturity. That evaluation indicated that the nature of the experiences he had related was experimental and developmental, although it indicated that drinking might be a concern because the experiences involved drinking. He was further evaluated to determine if there were any alcohol issues.

In reviewing his readiness for ordination, to our knowledge he never had any sexual activity with anyone during his four years at Mundelein, giving confidence that he actually did and could live a commitment to celibacy. While he was at Mundelein, no allegation or report or concern of sexual abuse of anyone was ever made against McCormack.

Read the rest here.

(H/T, rather amazingly, Andrew Sullivan.)

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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