While New Yorkers can be gratified to see the U.S.C.C.B. presidency make a turn toward the northeast—and we at America can only be delighted that a friend of the House and contributor has been selected to head the conference (best wishes and congrats, Archbishop Tim Dolan)—I can’t help but feel a little sorry about the shabby treatment experienced by Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. Surely after a lifetime of service to the church he deserved better than this.
The audacious campaign against him in the weeks leading up to the usually pro forma U.S.C.C.B. election had the disquieting appearance of a classic Lee Atwater/Karl Rovian takedown, as the Tucson bishop was forced suddenly to defend himself against charges of poor oversight decades ago as rector of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. The preposterous argument was that Kicanas would have a difficult time serving as president since he would be distracted by media attention to his 1992 decision to allow a seminarian in his charge, Daniel McCormack, to continue through to ordination. Kicanas’ ably defended himself against these charges, of course only after they had made it into print and done the damage they were intended to do to his reputation and opportunity for U.S.C.C.B. advancement. They appear to be without merit but more to the point, if the criteria for elevation to the U.S.C.C.B. high office will now be an absolutely spotless record on the sex abuse crisis, it may prove difficult to find anyone to stand for presidency in the future.
And why didn’t such scruples about background emerge before regarding other church figures who had a hand in the McCormack affair? Kicanas is not the only official with much to answer for regarding McCormack, who as a priest molested a number of children unlucky enough to be left in his care. The obvious answer is that Kicanas detractors were flinging whatever mud they could find at a bishop they deemed insufficiently confrontational; the sex abuse material proved the most toxic and “sticky.”
Adding to the hypocrisy and cynicism of the character assassination endured by Kicanas was one of its more surprising sources: the National Catholic Register. One wishes the Register had been equally as aggressive in reporting on the jaw-dropping parade of scandal and pathology within the high offices of its patron, the Legionaries of Christ, and its founder Marcial Marciel, a “priest” who stands alone in the pantheon of clerical depravity. The Registor’s sudden attentiveness to the crisis of the clerical abuse of children is welcome, even as it deployment to degrade Kicanas's candidacy invites skepticism. One looks forward to more institutionally restorative exposés from the Register on the problem in the future.
The bottom line: Kicanas was outmaneuvered and humiliated by folks who thought his pastoral style deficient and social agenda suspect. The gloating and celebration among self-described orthodox media voices and their chortling site visitors only adds to the general unpleasantness. It is hard to know how to respond to these goading displays and partisan strategies that seem directly lifted from political playbooks, but deeply out of place in dialogue with people who are part of one’s own church community.
Kicanas's only true heterodoxy, even in analysis of the people who torpedoed his candidacy, appears to be his position on immigration reform (BTW: that of the U.S. bishops) and his lack of enthusiasm for using the Eucharist as a cudgel. Of course, his actual positions hardly matter to a lot of these folks since “lefty” Catholics such as Kicanas are not part of the “authentic” Catholic church, as they continue to pound down new fenceposts and shovel embattlements around it. Their eagerness for the coming de-evangelization of the American branch of our Catholic family is personally depressing and probably a little heretical. Gerald Kicanas and his good name have become the latest collateral damage in this sorry campaign.