Speaker rejects panel's choice for chaplain, stirring tempest

House Republican leaders deny anti-Catholic bias in passing over priest

March 08, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This rancorous political season appears about to claim a most unlikely casualty: House Speaker Dennis Hastert's candidate for House chaplain.

What began last year as an elaborately bipartisan selection process has morphed into a name-calling match between Republicans and Democrats, with what some see as an undertone of religious bigotry.

Three months ago, Hastert passed over the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, a Catholic priest who had drawn the most votes from a bipartisan selection committee, in favor of the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister who finished third among three finalists in the voting.

Now, the Republican speaker says he is losing sleep trying to figure a way out of what Rep. Greg Ganske, an Iowa Republican, described as "a mess" that has Catholics around the country "shaking their heads in dismay."

Critics have raised questions about whether the Republican leadership is displaying an anti-Catholic bias for failing to ratify the selection of a priest who was the committee's top choice. A Catholic has never served as House chaplain.

And while Hastert and other Republican leaders vigorously protest the charge, there seems little hope that Wright can be the unifying, pastoral presence Hastert had hoped for.

Ganske and a number of other Catholic Republicans are urging that Wright withdraw his candidacy rather than face a vitriolic floor fight.

"I think we're just going to have to do without a chaplain until the next Congress," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican who is among those urging that Wright withdraw. "Enough is enough."

Wright has declined to comment, and House Republican leaders plan to put off any action on the chaplain post until after the last major round of presidential primaries next week. They would prefer to sidestep the hot-button issue of anti-Catholic bias that has laced through the presidential competition between George W. Bush and John McCain.

"The sad part is that we really wanted a nonpartisan chaplain," said John Feehery, a spokesman for the speaker, who accuses the Democrats of trying to make political hay out of the matter in hopes of courting Catholic swing voters.

By tradition, the House speaker appoints the House chaplain, and his choice is more or less rubber-stamped by the members. The current chaplain, the Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran minister who had planned to retire by now, was chosen in 1979 by a Democratic House speaker, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., after a minimum of consultation with his colleagues.

But Hastert, who took office at the beginning of last year promising a new era of bipartisanship, said he wanted to open up the chaplain selection process. He created a search committee that included nine members of each party. The committee considered more than 50 applications, interviewed 17 candidates, called back six a second time and finally narrowed the list to three through a series of ballots.

O'Brien was the top vote-getter, with 14 votes. The Rev. Robert Dvorak, an Evangelical minister, was second, with 10.5 votes. Wright trailed with 9.5 votes, most of them from Republicans. The three names were sent to Hastert, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, who interviewed the three finalists.

Hastert and Armey favored Wright, who has been active in the National Prayer Breakfast organization and had the support of conservative Republicans. Gephardt favored O'Brien but said he would have accepted Dvorak as a compromise candidate. The Democratic leader was outvoted.

"Hastert went to the trouble of appointing an exquisitely balanced, bipartisan committee that was supposed to come up with a consensus, and then he dismissed its recommendations in favor of a choice that was strictly partisan," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat who was co-chairman of the search panel.

Suggestions of anti-Catholic bias were based largely on a question posed to O'Brien during the interview process by Rep. Steve Largent, an Oklahoma Republican and a Protestant. He asked the priest whether his clerical collar might deter non-Catholics from seeking his pastoral counsel, a query that Largent himself later called "naive."

Hastert and Armey both angrily protest any suggestion of bias. A more widespread theory is that the Republican leaders had no idea how deep Catholic sensitivities run in an institution in which Catholics, though a minority, form the largest single denomination, as they do in America as a whole.

"I think they were clueless about what the reaction to this would be," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at Catholic University. "They didn't understand the implications of passing up a consensus candidate who happened to be a Catholic priest."

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