The Kicanas Problem

Deal W. Hudson
November 15, 2010

When the Catholic bishops meet in Baltimore this week, they will elect the next president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Usually, the chatter among Catholic punditry about who will be elected is minimal, given the longstanding tradition of elevating the vice president to the president’s job.

This year is different: Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, the current vice president of the USCCB, has been the subject of a growing debate over his fitness for the job of leading the conference.

As rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary in the early 1990s, Bishop Kicanas recommended the ordination of a seminarian, Daniel McCormack, even though the bishop was allegedly aware of three instances of sexual impropriety on McCormack’s part – two with adult males and one with a minor. McCormack was also treated for alcohol abuse during the same period.

Daniel McCormack went on to abuse at least 23 children and was eventually defrocked and sent to jail.

Bishop Kicanas was not alone in showing confidence in the priest. McCormack’s arrest on August 30, 2006, came only one day after Francis Cardinal George approved McCormack’s promotion to head a West Side deanery.

lawsuit brought by four of McCormack’s victims claims that not only Bishop Kicanas but also Cardinal George had knowledge of McCormack’s past, but that they did nothing to restrict his contact with minors.

Cardinal George, of course, is the outgoing president of the USCCB, and his involvement in the McCormack case illustrates the reason why the protests against the election of Bishop Kicanas are likely to make little difference. The case is not presently being made that Bishop Kicanas’s decision to ordain McCormack was any worse than decisions made by a number of sitting bishops and cardinals.

At the same time, the fact that the Kicanas problem has been raised by so-called conservative Catholics will ensure the same block of bishops who voted Bishop Kicanas as vice president will hold firm. The last thing these bishops want is to allow their course of action to be determined by what they commonly describe as “Internet rumors.”

But the Kicanas story took an interesting turn a few days ago when the bishop responded to questions from Tim Drake of the National Catholic Register. Bishop Kicanas denied knowing anything about McCormack’s sexual past:

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.

Asked why he did not issue a statement in response to a Chicago Sun-Times story on November 17, 2007, containing the allegation, Bishop Kicanas claims he told the “news media in Tucson” that the story had “inaccuracies.”

Drake then asked Bishop Kicanas to comment on the deposition of Cardinal George, who claimed he had knowledge of McCormack’s three sexual incidents. The bishop responded, “I have not read nor do I know any details about the cardinal’s deposition.”

Bishop Kicanas does admit, however, that he had knowledge of McCormack’s sexual activity from his college days, not his seminary days at Mundelein:

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.

The interview with Drake may move the debate over Bishop Kicanas to a new level, one that even his supporters cannot ignore. That Bishop Kicanas has waited so long to correct the record about his knowledge of McCormack’s past, and is now disputing a legal deposition by Cardinal George – made under oath – raises the question as to who is telling the truth.

Surely, if Bishop Kicanas did know about the three sexual incidents, there would be other members of the Mundelein staff or the Chicago chancery who could corroborate Cardinal George’s deposition.

The block of bishops who voted for Bishop Kicanas three years ago would like nothing better than to elect him president, and Bishop Leonard Blaire of Stockton, California, or Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, Utah, as the new vice president. This would ensure minimal change at the USCCB – and, by the way, at the embattled Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

It would only take a change of vote among 25 to 35 bishops to buck tradition and hand the president’s job to someone like Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York or Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who are among those also nominated. Unfortunately, those who back Bishop Kicanas will go onto the floor of the bishops’ meetings with all contingencies covered, making any change in succession highly unlikely.

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