House chaplain’s mysterious firing triggers uproar

 In Politics

Father Patrick Conroy is pictured in a crowd. | AP Photo

In this June 2016 photo, Father Patrick Conroy delivers a message as members of Congress join the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and the Congressional Muslim Staff Association for a prayer and moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol following the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse night club. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Members of both parties called Speaker Paul Ryan’s explanation of the dismissal lacking.

The mysterious firing of the House chaplain morphed into a full-on political firestorm for Republicans Friday as Democrats forced a floor vote on the issue and Catholics on both sides of the aisle said they weren’t satisfied with the reasons given for his ouster.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to quell the controversy Friday morning by addressing his decision to fire Father Patrick Conroy during a private GOP conference meeting. Ryan said Conroy’s ouster wasn’t politically motivated, as some have speculated. He said it came after complaints from multiple members about how the Jesuit priest wasn’t meeting their “pastoral needs,” as several Republican lawmakers exiting the meeting put it.

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But even that meeting devolved into drama as Catholic Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) scolded Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Baptist pastor, for comments Walker made about the next chaplain needing to have more of a family background.

Later in the day, Democrats forced a vote on a resolution to establish a select committee to investigate Conroy’s firing. The motion failed but not before a handful of Republicans defected from the majority of their party in a display of unity with Democrats upset by Conroy’s resignation.

Little detail has emerged about exactly why Ryan fired Conroy, the first time in history the House chaplain has been forced to step down. That’s left members to speculate about the possible reasons for his ouster, from a sermon he delivered in November, mentioning the GOP tax bill, to Conroy’s supposed lack of outreach after the congressional baseball practice shooting last summer.

“To be the first House chaplain to be removed in the history of Congress, in the middle of a term, raises serious questions,” King told reporters. “I think we deserve more of an explanation of why. Was there political pressure?”

In an email obtained by POLITICO Thursday, Conroy told a friend he had “no intentions of leaving” and thought it was important members “know the truth.”

But Conroy has said little on the matter publicly. He has declined most media requests, including from POLITICO. In an interview with The New York Times Thursday, Conroy said he still didn’t know why he was fired.

The controversy, which several sources on both sides called an “unforced error” on Ryan’s part, has galvanized Democrats and pitted Republicans against each other in a fight many say that weren’t looking to have on one of the thorniest issues out there — religion.

“Ryan bungled this. It’s entirely his prerogative to fire the chaplain, but without any public airing of grievances, it caught everyone off guard,” said one senior GOP aide.

Perhaps even more surprising, the controversy didn’t really gain steam until several days after Conroy announced his resignation. Conroy submitted his resignation letter — noting in the missive it was requested by Ryan — on April 16. But members didn’t start raising the issue until 10 days later, when word spread that Conroy was forced out by Ryan and didn’t actually want to retire.

One Republican lawmaker called the whole thing “stupid” and argued that it showed evidence of bias in the GOP Conference against Catholics. The person said some lawmakers wanted a more energetic person to minister to them and someone who could relate to having a wife and family.

“Now it’s Catholics versus Evangelicals,” the person said. “They want someone who is more Billy Graham.”

Intraparty divisions were on full display during the Republican Conference meeting as Ryan attempted to justify his decision to fire Conroy.

Ryan told lawmakers his unprecedented decision had nothing to do with politics or a specific prayer but was based on feedback from several members who felt Conroy wasn’t accessible enough, according to sources in the room.

Ryan did not offer specific examples to support his decision, leaving some members, including King, unsatisfied with the explanation. The New York Republican said he’s heard no complaints from his colleagues about Conroy and has seen “no evidence” for why he should be removed.

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