The House chaplain is staying, and so are the questions about his failed ousting
Posted May 4, 2018 10:19 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON (CNN) — When the Rev. Pat Conroy submitted his resignation letter as chaplain to the US House of Representatives on April 15, it was read aloud on the chamber floor but it went largely unnoticed.
Two weeks later, his announced-and-then-rescinded resignation was the talk of Capitol Hill.
The House chaplain may now have his job secured following House Speaker Paul Ryan accepting Conroy's letter reversing his decision, but the questions over Conroy's resignation don't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon -- most notably why the speaker, who is Catholic, requested that Conroy step down before the end of his term next year.
The mystery gave way to rumors and speculation that have roiled Capitol Hill during what would typically be a quieter time since both chambers are in recess. Conroy's letter rescinding his resignation Thursday exacerbated the situation, containing a bombshell allegation that Ryan's chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, had told Conroy that they wanted a non-Catholic chaplain -- an account Burks has denied.
Lawmakers from both parties have consistently appeared confused as to why Ryan asked for Conroy's departure, leaving his office open to criticism and questioning from either side of the aisle and few defenders of the decision to fire a priest.
A little over 31% of the members in Congress are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and at least 148 lawmakers were among those asking questions about the move, with few answers to be found going into the weekend.
Resignation letter outlines Ryan's request
The news of the circumstances surrounding Conroy's departure surfaced last week, once two versions of the chaplain's original resignation letter to Ryan were published in news reports.
In the first version, Conroy wrote that Ryan should consult with his chief of staff on a resignation date, but the second version stated that his last day would be May 24. Both versions said the House speaker "requested" that Conroy resign, and neither explained the reasons why he was asked to do so.
Conroy, the first Jesuit priest to hold the position, has been a respected figure in Congress whose role has included acting as a spiritual guide and therapist to members through his seven years of service. Jesuits close to Conroy told CNN he was particularly perplexed because he has made strong friendships with Republicans in his tenure as chaplain and genuinely tried to stay out of politics (though some critics have pointed to at least one tax-themed prayer that seemed politically charged).
When asked by the media whether Ryan had requested the resignation, Ryan's spokeswoman AshLee Strong denied that Conroy was pushed out for anything he said or did, but she didn't elaborate on what triggered the resignation request.
"The speaker consulted with the minority leader, but the decision was his," she told CNN in a statement last week. "He remains grateful for Father Conroy's service."
But Conroy had and has both Democratic and Republican allies in the House, including Reps. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, and Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, who immediately demanded answers after the resignation letters were published.
Connolly had been among the most vocal critics of Ryan's decision, and he cited the lack of a clear explanation as to why he started getting calls from his fellow lawmakers searching for a solution.
"All of the reasons that came tumbling out seemed to me to be a bad decision desperately in need of a rationale," Connolly told CNN in a phone interview Friday.
One GOP leadership aide told CNN that some wonder why Democrats waited more than 10 days to make it an issue.
"I think everyone was pretty surprised at how this blew up seemingly out of nowhere last week," the GOP aide said. "They put out a statement two or three weeks ago and no one really raised anything ... until last week, when Democrats decided that it was an issue and then people went back and had questions."
Republicans among those questioning Ryan
It wasn't just Democrats taking shots at the Republican House speaker; GOP members refused to defend the decision and some openly criticized Ryan's handling of the resignation.
By the time House Republicans met for a caucus meeting last Friday, at least two GOP members confronted Ryan over the firing, multiple Republicans told CNN.
According to a person at the meeting, Ryan explained that he had asked Conroy to resign "based on member feedback about pastoral care."
A separate GOP member who attended the meeting said Ryan "didn't say this as bluntly but the reason for the change is that many of us like Father Conroy but we feel like he didn't do anything."
The member continued: "He never reached out to us or proactively checked on us. He was always there at votes, attended our retreats, we'd see him in the gym, but what does he do he do all day? I don't know. We'd like to have a pastor that's a little more engaged. A little more proactive."
But among the Republicans who spoke publicly, most had only positive things to say about Conroy.
"It is such an unprecedented action, to only be taken for very, very serious issues," Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican who is Catholic, said after the meeting last Friday. "And the speaker said it was just because certain people said he was not complying with their request or was not giving good counsel. I never heard that from anyone."
In the days following the meeting, scrutiny over the firing intensified, even as lawmakers left town for the weeklong recess. Connolly, as well as Jones, sent a letter, gathering 148 signatures in one working day, officially requesting an explanation from Ryan.
This week, lawmakers started holding informal discussions to hash out a plan that would reinstate Conroy until the end of his term, while a search committee looked for someone else, though Conroy could still be considered for the job.
Conroy rescinds his resignation and drops a bombshell
By Thursday, Conroy took matters into his own hands and wrote a letter to Ryan rescinding his resignation. The letter was also sent to a few others, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
"At this time, and upon advice of counsel, I hereby retract and rescind said resignation for the reasons that follow," Conroy wrote in the letter, dated Thursday and addressed to Ryan.
Conroy's letter called out Ryan's chief of staff by name and described a conversation in which Burks said Ryan didn't want a Catholic chaplain.
"While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence," on April 13 chief of staff Jonathan Burks "came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation," Conroy wrote in the letter to Ryan. "I inquired as to whether or not it was 'for cause,' and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like, 'maybe it's time that we had a Chaplain that wasn't a Catholic.' "
The previous House chaplain, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, was also a Catholic priest. He served for 11 years, meaning there have been about 18 years of Catholic priests as chaplains.
The letter continued: "At that point, I thought that I had little choice but to resign, as my assumption was that you had the absolute prerogative and authority to end my term as House chaplain."
Burks vehemently denied what the chaplain wrote in the letter, saying he was "disappointed" by his recollection of the conversation.
"I strongly disagree with Father Conroy's recollection of our conversation," he said in a statement to CNN. "I am disappointed by the misunderstanding, but wish him the best as he continues to serve the House."
Ryan released a statement Thursday night accepting Conroy's decision and committed to meeting with him next week.
"My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution," Ryan said. "To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves."
Ryan's spokeswoman denied Friday there was an anti-Catholic bias in the office.
"To suggest there is any anti-Catholic bias in the speaker's office is not only wrong but absurd," she said in a statement to CNN.
But the allegation in the letter, which reverberated through the Catholic community, led to one of the nation's leading Catholic civil rights groups calling in a statement Friday for Ryan to fire his chief of staff.
"It's time Ryan found himself a new chief of staff," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in the statement. "Anti-Catholic bigotry cannot be tolerated anywhere, and certainly not in Washington."
Democrats continue to demand answers
Despite Ryan's acceptance of Conroy's latest letter, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, chairman of the Democratic caucus, said a lot of questions remain as to what happened and the role the speaker's office played in the dismissal.
Crowley told CNN in an interview that Democrats are still considering legislative steps -- possibly another motion or another letter -- to look further into the situation, even so much as to call for a special panel to investigate the issue, a move Pelosi said she backed.
"His abrupt, unjust dismissal is hard to understand and impossible to support," Pelosi said in a statement Thursday. "I commend Chairman Joe Crowley for his privileged resolution to establish a Select Committee to investigate the motivation for this unwarranted dismissal."
With Democrats in the minority, the formation of such a committee when lawmakers return next week seems highly unlikely, but it was indicative of the overall energy surrounding the move, which did not appeared quelled even with the chaplain's job secured.
"I'm not so sure it's all over yet," Crowley said.