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Firing of House Chaplain Creates Uproar on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to fire the House chaplain erupted into controversy Friday on Capitol Hill, as the speaker faced pushback in his own party and Democrats sought to exploit a delicate and potentially explosive political issue.

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Firing of House Chaplain Creates Uproar on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to fire the House chaplain erupted into controversy Friday on Capitol Hill, as the speaker faced pushback in his own party and Democrats sought to exploit a delicate and potentially explosive political issue.

The chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, said in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday that he was blindsided when Ryan asked him to resign two weeks ago, and suggested that a prayer he gave about the new tax law may have been a factor in the speaker’s decision.

The issue emerges at a delicate time for Republicans, who are already facing significant headwinds in the coming midterm elections. A public clash between Southern evangelical Republicans and Northern Catholics could play to the advantage of Democrats, who are pressing hard to bring working-class Catholic regions in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin back into the Democratic fold.

In a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers Friday morning, the speaker insisted that politics had nothing to do with the firing, according to Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., who was in attendance and questioned the speaker.

King said in an interview that Ryan told the assembled lawmakers that he had removed Conroy because of complaints about his availability and the quality of his pastoral care. King said he had never heard such complaints, and told the speaker that he needed to give a more public explanation.

“I said, ‘This issue is not going to go away quickly,'” King said, adding, “As far as the complaints, I never heard any of them.”

A House Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Ryan gave the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, an additional reason: He said he was upset that the chaplain had granted an interview to The National Journal.

In the interview, Conroy expounded on matters ranging from sexual harassment to a possible spiritual crisis in Congress. He said he was asked during his job interview whether he had ever molested a child. And while he said he had never been asked to counsel a victim of sexual harassment or assault, he had handled cases of workplace abuse during his tenure in the House.

“Think about it: Who are the people that run for office?” he was quoted as saying. “Are they all highly skilled in every endeavor? No! They’re not. Many of them, I can tell you, don’t know how to say hello in the hallway, let alone work with office people that maybe they don’t think they have to listen to.”

Democrats did not hesitate to amplify the moment. They commandeered the House floor Friday for a boisterous but unsuccessful effort to establish a select committee to investigate the matter. Their “privileged resolution” to set up the panel was set aside on a largely party-line vote.

In a statement after the vote, Pelosi — who, like the speaker and King, is Roman Catholic — defended Conroy and said the speaker had no authority to force him out.

“It is my hope that we will honor Father Conroy’s service by pursuing justice and making clear the true motivations of this unjust action,” she said. “I have expressed my forceful disagreement with this decision to the speaker. It is truly sad that he made this decision, and it is especially bewildering that he did so only a matter of months before the end of his term. The speaker did this knowing that he had no power to fire Father Conroy and instead chose to force him out by demanding his resignation.”

Then 147 Democrats — and one Republican, Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina — sent a letter to Ryan asking him to describe the steps he took leading to the chaplain’s ouster, and to justify his decision.

“We believe that, absent such details, questions will inevitably arise about the politicization of the process for hiring and dismissing a House chaplain,” the lawmakers wrote.

Ryan’s move appeared to expose a religious divide among Christians in the House. Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who is a Southern Baptist minister, was quoted in The Hill newspaper saying that the next House chaplain should be “somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here.”

King said Roman Catholics took umbrage at that statement, because Catholic priests, who take a vow of celibacy, would be excluded from considerations under the criteria Walker set forth. “To be excluding one religion up front, that has all sorts of connotations coming from the evangelical community,” King said. Conroy had served in the role of chaplain since he was nominated in 2011 by Speaker John A. Boehner, a fellow Catholic. In the Times interview, Conroy was categorical: His departure was not voluntary.

“I was asked to resign, that is clear,” Conroy said. As for why, he added, “that is unclear.”

“I certainly wasn’t given anything in writing,” he said. “Catholic members on both sides are furious.”

Though Conroy said he did not know whether politics were behind his departure, he pointed to a prayer he had given on the House floor in November, when Congress was debating tax overhaul legislation.

“May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle,” he prayed. “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

About a week later, Conroy said, he heard from the speaker’s office. “A staffer came down and said, We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political,” he said. “It suggests to me that there are members who have talked to him about being upset with that prayer.”

Shortly after, when he saw Ryan himself, Conroy said the speaker told him, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

“That is what I have tried to do for seven years,” Conroy said. “It doesn’t sound political to me.”

“If you are hospital chaplain, you are going to pray about health,” he added. “If you are a chaplain of Congress, you are going to pray about what Congress is doing.” Conroy said that was the only time anyone from the speaker’s office had ever chastised him for veering into the political realm. “I’ve never been talked to about being too political in seven years,” he said.

A congressional aide for Ryan said no specific prayer had led to the decision.

Conroy said he received the news of his dismissal from Ryan’s chief of staff. “The speaker would like your resignation,” Conroy recalled being told. He complied.

“As you have requested, I hereby offer my resignation as the 60th chaplain of the United States House of Representatives,” Conroy wrote in a letter to Ryan several days later. “I wish all the best of the House of Representatives, and for your upcoming search for a worthy successor in the office of the chaplain.”

His final day will be May 24.

Conroy’s resignation is all the more contentious in Catholic circles because Ryan is a Catholic conservative, whereas Conroy is a Jesuit, a branch that is viewed by some as more liberal.

Asked whether differences in politics were a factor in his ouster, Conroy said: “I do not want to politicize this. I have thoughts about it, but I am not contributing to that.”

But, he said, Capitol Hill is an inherently political place. “There are Catholics who are Republicans and there are Catholics who are Democrats,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a religious divide; there certainly is a political one.” Conroy said his only communication with Ryan or his office since he was asked to resign came Wednesday morning, when the speaker thanked him for his seven years of service before the House welcomed President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Conroy said he did not ask Ryan why he was asked to resign, and he does not plan to contest his departure. “I do not want to debate this,” he said. “My understanding going into this is that I serve at the prerogative of the speaker.”

Lawmakers from both parties are demanding answers.

Jones and Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., began circulating the letter for their colleagues to sign, asking Ryan for more information.

“I’m very upset,” Jones said. “If this is true about the prayer, and we have freedom of religion in America, how about freedom of religion on the floor of the House?”

“The members of the House vote for the chaplain,” he continued. “This is not a one-man decision. The House should have the facts of whatever the problem is.”

Connolly said he was worried about the precedent Ryan’s decision could set. The letter asks the speaker for a description of the process that was followed, and for a justification of the decision.

“We believe that, absent such details, questions will inevitably arise about the politicization of the process for hiring and dismissing a House chaplain,” the letter says. “Not revealing such details could also risk resurrecting prior questions of religious bias.”

“Pat is a fairly popular figure in the House,” Connolly said. “He’s counseled people and tended to their personal and spiritual needs. This is a personal and jarring decision that affects all of us in a big way.” Because of the lack of clarity surrounding his resignation, Conroy said that he had been fielding calls from friends and House members, some inaccurately congratulating him on his retirement or worrying that he was sick.

“They asked me why I am leaving, why I am abandoning them, congratulations on your retirement, what is next,” he said. “To which I say, ‘I wasn’t looking for a job.'”

“For the most part, that information has been met by shock,” he continued. “That is the gratifying part.”

Conroy said he had thoroughly enjoyed being the House chaplain, and had not politicized his work.

“I have found it myself to be personally liberating because I have not been allowed to engage in the politics of the day, which has been very healthy for me,” he said. “I’m grateful that that was my ministry.”

When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, Conroy gave him a personal blessing in Spanish. He has traveled with congressional delegations to Southeast Asia and to the Middle East. He has also acted as personal spiritual adviser to many members of both parties, and to their families.

“I’m going to miss that kind of stuff,” Conroy said. But, he added, “There will be another ministry.”

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