BALTIMORE (CNS) — New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan said Nov. 16 that he was grateful to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops but that being chosen to succeed Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago in the post “was unexpected.”
In an interview with Telecare, the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocesan television station, Archbishop Dolan called his election “a humbling moment.”
“There were 10 candidates. The posture of the bishops, of course, is you don’t really run for office, you run from it,” he said with a laugh.
“Our major focus, our major drive is our dioceses,” Archbishop Dolan continued. “We love the conference. We respect and appreciate it. We are so immersed in our dioceses, most of us say we have our hands full at home” yet still offer to do something to help the conference when needed.
Archbishop Dolan, 60, added, “This is what service to the church is all about. … You make yourself available.”
He told Catholic News Service he’s a bit daunted to be following in the footsteps of Cardinal George because of his predecessor’s skill in the position. He takes office at the end of the bishops’ meeting Nov. 18.
The archbishop’s election was an unprecedented departure from the USCCB’s normal tradition of electing the conference vice president to the presidency.
He said he had no idea what was behind the bishops’ 128-111 third-ballot vote to make him president instead of current vice president Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.
It marks the first time since the bishops’ conference was reorganized in 1966 following the Second Vatican Council reforms that a sitting vice president who sought the presidency did not win the election. In two elections, circumstances dictated that the vice president did not rise to lead the conference.
In 1974, Coadjutor Archbishop Leo C. Byrne of St. Paul and Minneapolis, vice president since 1971, died less than a month before his term ended.
Three years later, Cardinal John J. Carberry of St. Louis as vice president declined to run for the top spot because he was 73 years old and due to retire before he could complete a three-year term as president.
A sampling of bishops interviewed after the Nov. 16 vote suggested the choice of Archbishop Dolan seemed to be more about changing the process of assuming the vice president would be elected president.
Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss., said it was his sense that “there’s been some question as to whether the vice president should automatically be elected … and that the election was more about that principle.”
In a statement, Bishop Kicanas said that he respected the wisdom of his “brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president. I greatly appreciated their expressions of thanks to me for my service as vice president.” He added, “Serving as vice president has been a marvelous experience.”
He said that “a priest’s life is all about service — service to the people of God, service to the church and its mission,” and he was honored to serve all as vice president for the past three years.
“Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a long time friend since our seminary work together. I know of his great wit, jovial spirit, keen ability to relate to people in a deeply personal way and his exceptional leadership qualities. These will certainly serve the conference well as he begins his term as president,” Bishop Kicanas said.
He said he looked forward “to continuing to do whatever I can to further the work of the conference” but also to be able to focus on his own diocese and the needs of its priests, women and men religious, and laity, all of “whom I have grown to love deeply.”
At a news conference after the bishops’ morning session concluded, Archbishop Dolan said his election came as a real surprise.
When asked to accept a nomination as one of 10 candidates for president, he said that “in all candor you automatically think in terms of being vice president. How to interpret that? I don’t know. I do know that the bishops hold Bishop Kicanas in the highest esteem. It was hardly like a landslide election.”
Three years ago in the USCCB election for vice president, Bishop Kicanas “beat me by one vote,” he said, adding that nobody is “a shoo-in.” The actual vote in that 2007 race was 128 for Bishop Kicanas to 106 for Archbishop Dolan.
He said he would be interested “in seeing the interpretations given” as to why he was elected over Bishop Kicanas.
Asked if there was an outside campaign aimed at affecting the outcome of the election, Archbishop Dolan said, “That wouldn’t be new. There’s always some controversy around the elections. It’s not like I’ve been immune from that. I’ve felt the heat from blog attacks myself. The bishops bristle if they feel there’s any undue pressure from the outside.”
On the eve of the bishops’ annual meeting, news reports, including a blog by a reporter at the National Catholic Register, claimed that years ago Bishop Kicanas, while a seminary rector in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, had ignored evidence of sexual abuse by a future Chicago priest, Daniel McCormack, now serving time in prison.
McCormack was a seminarian when then-Father Kicanas was rector of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in the Chicago Archdiocese. McCormack was ordained in 1994; in 2006, he was a pastor and accused of abusing young boys from 2001 to 2005.
Bishop Kicanas issued a lengthy response, in which he said that while he was rector, he never received any allegations of pedophilia or child molestation against McCormack. “I would never defend endorsing McCormack’s 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,” Bishop Kicanas said.
“With the harm that he has done to children and families, it is tragic that he was ordained,” the bishop said.
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Contributing to this story were Patricia Zapor and Mark Pattison in Baltimore and Dennis Sadowski in Washington.
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