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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is reconsidering her support for a Catholic priest nominated as House chaplain after learning that he works for a Jesuit group ordered to pay $166 million for more than 400 claims of child sexual abuse.
A spokesman for the California Democrat told Roll Call on Tuesday night that Speaker John Boehner’s office did not tell Pelosi about the March settlement — the largest ever by a single religious order to victims of sexual abuse — by the Rev. Patrick Conroy’s current employer, the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.
“We are most sympathetic to the concerns of the families [of victims] and take their views very seriously,” spokesman Drew Hammill said in an email. “Mr. Boehner has now provided us with additional, new information. As with the information he provided earlier along with his recommendation, we will now review these new materials.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, however, said Pelosi’s office could have figured out the news on its own.
“The settlement is public knowledge, reported in The New York Times, among other media outlets,” he said in an email. “It was not a part of the discussion because it has absolutely nothing to do with Fr. Conroy. It is only being discussed now because Roll Call is asking about it.”
That’s a much different tone from last week, when Boehner’s office announced Conroy’s nomination, noting that it had the full support of both party leaders. The full House is expected to vote on the nomination later this month.
Plaintiff’s attorneys involved in the massive lawsuit said Conroy has not been accused of abusing any children or even covering up for other priests. In fact, Conroy blew the whistle on at least one case of abuse at a prior job.
Still, at least one victim and others involved in the case questioned whether the nomination to House chaplain was an appropriate honor for a member of the order.
Boehner’s office said he is sticking by his choice and noted Conroy was vetted by the Capitol Police, the House counsel and the Chief Administrative Officer.
“Both Speaker Boehner and Democratic Leader Pelosi reviewed Fr. Conroy’s background before the Speaker selected him,” Steel said. “Fr. Conroy was honest and candid, and the Speaker is confident he will be a great chaplain for the entire House of Representatives community.”
Conroy, who was ordained in 1983, would be only the second Catholic priest and the first Jesuit to hold the post of House chaplain. There were reportedly five candidates for the position, though it is unknown from what denominations or who exactly was up for the job.
Boehner and Pelosi are Catholic. In addition, Boehner is a graduate of Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati and Pelosi, through her husband and son, has ties to Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution where Conroy worked as recently as 2003.
In announcing the nomination, Boehner’s office sent out a press release noting much of Conroy’s past work and educational experience, including his most recent work at Jesuit High School in Portland. The release did not mention his concurrent role as formation assistant for the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus from 2006 to 2010, helping priests-to-be work toward ordination.
That group’s March settlement covers decades of abuse by several priests, mostly on Native American reservations in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
More than 100 victims are from the Colville Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington, where Conroy worked from 1984 to 1989 as a pastor. The bulk of the abuse happened before the 1980s, and three law firms representing separate groups of plaintiffs in the case independently confirmed that Conroy is not listed as a party accused of sexual abuse of children.
But Elsie Boudreau, a victim of sexual assault by an Oregon Province Jesuit in Alaska starting in 1978, said the fact that the Speaker chose someone from the group is insensitive to her and the other Native American children who were abused.
“It’s not only insensitive, it’s appalling,” she said. “The abuse was so pervasive and the damage that has been done is irreparable. For Boehner to choose someone from the Oregon Province I think says a lot to the fact that, ‘Oh well, they continued to operate this way but it’s OK.’”
Patrick Wall, a former priest who now consults lawyers on clergy sexual abuse, said choosing a member of the group honors the Oregon Province.
He said Boehner and Pelosi should not be aligning themselves with a group that “has filed not only financial bankruptcy, but basically filed moral bankruptcy.”
“I don’t think he should be given a position as a chaplain to any government entity because his province alone had over 400 alleged survivors of their priests,” Wall said.
Margaret Smith, part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice research team that carried out the most comprehensive study to date on the prevalence of sexual abuse among Catholic priests, said the incidence of abuse is overblown.
“Those who have been terrifically and personally affected by these things think their personal influence should affect what happens on a national basis,” she said. “The bottom line is, there is a lot of this behavior in this society. Everyone is a few degrees of separation from someone who has acted inappropriately from an adolescent, unfortunately.”
Conroy did not respond to two emailed requests for comment.
The Very Rev. Patrick Lee, superior of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, said in a statement that he is “deeply disappointed” by the reaction to Conroy’s nomination.
“Fr. Conroy is an excellent priest worthy of the nomination made by Speaker Boehner,” Lee said. “He has never been the subject of an allegation of child abuse.”
The Rev. Patrick Howell, a member of the Oregon Province and rector of the Jesuit community at Seattle University, where Conroy worked for four years in the 1990s, said that most incidents of abuse happened decades ago and that the perpetrators are “under supervision and very restricted.”
“Safeguards were put in to protect children. We all go through a training each year, both for the archdiocese and Jesuit order,” he said. “If anything, we’re probably better qualified to reach out to people in need and to understand the different trials and crises that people go through.”
Those safeguards were not yet in place in 1986, when Conroy, three years out of college, informed a superior about a Roman Catholic priest whom he suspected of abusing a boy.
The Seattle Times reported in 2002 that Conroy wrote a letter in 1986 to then-Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen stating that a boy told him that he had been abused by a priest when he was 12 or 13 at a parish in Snohomish, Wash.
“It seems this young man, who is about 20 years old now, was one of many young boys, years ago, who spent a lot of time with Fr. Dennis Champagne in the rectory and on outings,” Conroy wrote in 1986, according to the Times. “It came to pass on one such occasion that Fr. Champagne made a homosexual pass at the young boy in question, momentarily molesting him. The youth fled immediately. Fr. Champagne never again made such a pass, and the young man never told anyone, with the exception of a friend, who asked me to talk to the victim, about this incident.”
Conroy told the Times in 2002 that the archdiocese never responded to him and that he did not follow up on the complaint. The archdiocese told the newspaper at the time that the boy did not want to go public with his complaint.
Champagne remained in active ministry until 2002, when he resigned after the victim came forward publicly.
Roll Call reported in 2008 that former House Chaplain Daniel Coughlin managed priests who had been accused of sexual abuse for the Chicago Archdiocese before coming to the House in 2000.