Church analyst: Election of Archbishop Dolan signals desire for strong leader

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York


A well-known Church analyst says the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president of the U.S. bishops' conference is a confirmation that the bishops want a strong, outspoken leader to guide the Church in an increasingly polarized and secular culture.

Few experts would have predicted that Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York would be chosen as president of the U.S. bishops' conference. He won the election in a close run-off with Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, the previous vice president of the conference. The election produced uncharacteristically divided results, especially considering the fact that the choice of the sitting vice president as the new conference head is usually close to unanimous.

Church analyst Rocco Palmo called the move a “seismic shift,” telling CNA that the election of Archbishop Dolan indicated a desire on the part of the bishops to continue the trend of strong and outspoken leadership.

Since a 50 percent majority is required for a candidate to be elected, the vote had to be taken three times before a president was chosen.

The clear contenders out of the 10 candidates for presidency were Archbishop Dolan and Bishop Kicanas. By the third round, the New York prelate garnered 128 votes (54 percent) and Bishop Kicanas received 111 votes (46 percent).

The vote for the vice president was equally divided. The top two candidates for the position were Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Lousiville, Ky., who won with 147 votes over Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who garnered 91.

The Nov. 16 vote for president made history as the bishops have traditionally always elected the incumbent vice president to serve as the next president.

But Bishop Kicanas had previously faced controversy for allegedly allowing a seminarian with a history of a sexual misconduct with a minor to be ordained while he was rector of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois. Then-Father Kicanas became head of the seminary in 1984 and Fr. Daniel McCormack was ordained a priest in 1994.

Fr. McCormack would later be accused of sexually abusing 23 boys. In 2006 he was suspended from active ministry for allegations that he sexually abused two under-aged males. Fr. McCormack was sentenced to prison for five years in 2007.

Bishop Kicanas has denied claims that he knew of Fr. McCormack's history before the priest was ordained.

Releasing a statement after his defeat on Nov. 16, Bishop Kicanas said “I respect the wisdom of my brother bishops in choosing their new president and vice president.”

“Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a long time friend since our seminary work together,” he added. “I know of his great wit, jovial spirit, keen ability to relate to people in a deeply personal way and his exceptional leadership qualities.”

Audible gasps were heard in the room as the vote for presidency came down to Archbishop Dolan and Bishop Kicanas on Tuesday morning.

“I am still out of breath,” Rocco Palmo, author of the blog Whispers in the Loggia, told CNA, just after the election. “Never before in history” has a standing vice president not been elected as president of the conference.

The only occasion in the existence of the conference where the vice president was not elected as president was an instance where the candidate in question, Cardinal John Carberry of St. Louis, would have retired before the end of his three year term as president.

“It represents a seismic shift,” Palmo said. “Above all, it's an indication of everything Cardinal George has been and done over his tenure the last three years in really kind of raising the level of bishops' outspokenness in moral clarity and moral courage, especially in the health care fight.”

It's also an indication of Archbishop Dolan's rising position, he said. The New York archbishop “has been unstintingly strong in his defense of the Holy Father and the defense of the right of Catholics to be treated fairly in the press, as he sees it.”

“Literally, it feels like the world is watching,” Palmo added. “Word is already going around.”

Palmo also said the election shows a desire on the part of the conference to keep up a “new tradition” of “strong leadership.”

Because of Archbishop Dolan's role as head of what is one of the most prominent archdioceses in the world, Palmo said the new USCCB president's tenure will be worth watching.

“Buckle your seat belts – it's going to be a fun ride.”

Archbishop Dolan, who leads an archdiocese of 2.5 million Catholics in New York, has shown himself comfortable and outspoken in presenting the Church's stance on hot-button issues since his appointment to the post in early 2009. A regular critic of the New York Times, Archbishop Dolan has had no qualms about speaking his opinion.

The New York leader has also effectively utilized technology during his time in office, starting his own blog called “The Gospel in the Digital Age.” A prominent figure in New York City, he recently offered to meet with political leaders and moderate the highly controversial Islamic center and mosque slated to be built near Ground Zero – the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Born in 1950, the archbishop is the first of five children to Shirley Radcliffe Dolan and the late Robert Dolan. In 1964, he began his high school seminary education at St. Louis Preparatory Seminary South in Shrewsbury, Mo.

After studying at Cardinal Glennon College and then at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Archbishop Dolan was ordained a priest on June 19, 1976.

On June 19, 2001, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis by Pope John Paul II. He was then named Archbishop of Milwaukee by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Archbishop Dolan took the reigns of the Archdiocese of New York when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him in February of 2009.

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