NEW YORK — A bipartisan group that includes Catholic members of the House of Representatives are demanding answers from Speaker Paul Ryan following revelations that he forced the ouster of Jesuit Father Patrick Conroy as House Chaplain.
A letter obtained by Crux has been drafted and circulated for signatures by Representative Gerry Connolly (Democrat – Virginia), Congressman Walter Jones (Republican – North Carolina), Carol Shea-Porter (Democrat-New Hampshire), and Marcy Kaptur (Democrat – Ohio). It demands that Ryan provide a “description of the process followed to arrive at the decision and a justification for that decision.”
In an interview with Crux on Friday, Jones said he is hoping the letter will be an occasion where “Catholics and Protestants alike will rally for the chaplain.”
“Absent transparency, we are also concerned about the implicit damage done to the reputation of the House chaplain personally. Continued silence on this matter could allow unfair and utterly unfounded inferences to be made about his character and the evenhandedness of the House on dealing with matters of faith,” the representatives wrote in their letter.
Jones, who has been in Congress since 1995, said he’s known every chaplain since that time, and told Crux he is “very upset” by Ryan’s decision to fire Conroy.
He described Conroy as “truly a man of God,” adding that “what has been done is absolutely absurd and ridiculous.”
Conroy was unanimously approved as House chaplain in May 2011, and it was announced last month that he was resigning his post. While many believed his departure from the post was voluntary, earlier this week it was revealed that it actually comes at Ryan’s request.
According to Conroy, Ryan requested his resignation following a prayer regarding a November Congressional debate over tax reform legislation.
“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,” Conroy said in prayer offered on November 6, 2017.
Ryan’s office has since claimed that the decision to request Conroy’s resignation was due to complaints that he did not meet the “pastoral needs” of members of the House.
On Friday, Republicans voted down an effort by caucus chairman Congressman Joe Crowley of New York to create a select committee to investigate Conroy’s dismissal.
In a statement to Crux on Friday, Crowley said, “Father Pat was a steadfast voice in the House, respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. I’m honored to call him a friend.”
“He’s provided expert counsel to members throughout his seven-year tenure as the House Chaplain. It is outrageous that he was forced to resign after asking lawmakers to take into consideration the needs of the poor in our country,” Crowley continued.
Jones told Crux that he first heard reports about Conroy’s forced resignation while reading The Hill, a daily Capitol Hill newspaper, on Thursday morning. After calling several colleagues, “the more ridiculous and unfair I found it to be.”
He said he spoke with Conroy on Thursday who confirmed that the reason for his departure was his prayer, something which has further infuriated Jones.
“Those are the teachings in the Bible, whether you be a Catholic or Protestant,” Jones remarked.
He also maintains that he does not believe Ryan’s defense that Conroy was asked to leave due to complaints from other members of Congress.
“If that’s true, why didn’t Paul Ryan email all 435 members asking for their assessment of his spiritual leadership?” Jones asked.
“He never surveyed anyone,” Jones added.
In another show of Republican support for Conroy, Congressman Tom Reed of New York told Crux that he has known the chaplain for seven years and that he, too, was “unaware of any legitimate grounds for the termination of the Chaplain of the House.”
He went on to note that he stands with his colleagues in questioning the removal of Conroy from his post.
John Carr, who worked as the chief point person for the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Capitol Hill for over 20 years told Crux on Friday that “In my experience, he was scrupulously nonpartisan, non-political.”
“He always believed politics is a worthy vocation and the people who take it up ought to be encouraged, prayed for, and not attacked,” Carr continued. “A chaplain’s job is to care for those entrusted to them and occasionally also to challenge them to hear the voice of God and their own. And in my experience Father Conroy did both.”
Meanwhile, Mary Monnat, a long-time friend of Conroy’s from his days at Jesuit High School in Portland, told Crux that when she heard Conroy had been tapped for the job, she couldn’t think of a better person for it.
Monnat, who is CEO of LifeWorks NW, an Oregon based nonprofit focused on mental health and addiction treatment and served on two education related boards with Conroy, said that thinking back on the way in which Conroy worked with students at the Jesuit High School, including her son, she couldn’t imagine him engaging in partisan behavior and has a hard time believing reports that he would be failing in his pastoral duties.
“He would make a point to memorize every single student’s name,” said Monnat. “That’s some 800 to 1,000 kids and he would memorize their names so that he could know all of them.”
Michael Bayer, director of evangelization and adult formation at St. Clement’s Catholic Church in Chicago, told Crux that he has known Conroy since 2001 when he was a freshman at Georgetown University and Conroy ran the retreat program. He offered similar reflections, noting that Conroy would remember the names of all 1,600 freshmen each year.
“He became legendary for this ability. Students could walk into the cafeteria, their first day on campus, and Fr. Pat would welcome them by name. He had a special outreach to those who were sitting alone or appeared distressed. If a student were sitting by herself at lunch, Fr. Pat would walk up, ask if he could join, and just ask questions about that person’s day,” Bayer recalled.
Yet while many Catholics have come out in defense of Conroy, other Catholics have defended Ryan’s actions.
Maureen Ferguson of The Catholic Association issued a statement saying, “Anyone who knows Speaker Ryan knows he is a devoted Catholic; the criticisms surrounding the Speaker’s decision to ask the House chaplain to step aside are baseless and downright absurd.”
“The Speaker attempted to give Father Conroy a gracious and dignified exit, but as is frequently the case in Washington, much ado is being made about nothing,” Ferguson added.
While members of Congress are away on recess next week, Jones told Crux that he doesn’t believe the issue over Conroy’s departure will go away any time soon.
He is going to continue to work with his Republican colleagues in order to rally support for Conroy in hopes of saving his post.
“This is one of the most unfair things I’ve ever seen, and it’s a sad commentary on America,” said Jones. “You see all of this and you have to think what in the heck is this country about?”
“This is as bad as anything I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress,” he concluded.