NEWS STORY: Report: No Ranking of Final Chaplain Candidates

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The co-chairmen of the selection committee for the next chaplain of the House of Representatives issued a report Friday (Jan. 14) saying the committee did not rank the finalists for the position.

The 75-page report, sent to House members, comes after criticism from some Catholics and some Democrats who said the House leadership’s selection of the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian, rather than the Rev. Tim O’Brien, a Catholic priest, raised questions of possible anti-Catholic bias.

The report shows the committee did take a”final tally”of six semi-finalists to determine the three candidates to be considered by House leaders. O’Brien received the most votes _ 14 _ and Wright got the third-highest number of votes _ 9.5. The Rev. Robert Dvorak, a Connecticut-based leader of the Evangelical Covenant Church, received 10.5 votes.

In a letter accompanying the report, the committee co-chairs said Wright was chosen by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., after the House leaders interviewed the three finalists.”Under the procedures established for the selection, the role of the committee was to advance three finalists,”wrote Reps. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and Tom Bliley, R-Va.”It was understood the final selection would be made by Speaker Hastert, Leader Armey and Leader Gephardt. No ranking of the finalists was established by the committee.” Despite the efforts of those closely involved in the process to explain their actions, some critics say they still have questions that have gone unanswered.”A rational person would conclude that while they don’t call it a ranking, … O’Brien was still regarded as the most favorable candidate by a majority of the committee,”said Al Menendez, associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty, a Silver Spring, Md.-based group that has questioned the process.”We still believe that the … Rev. Wright should not be approved. There’s just too many questions there related to religious bias and discrimination. The process should be debated throughly.” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, which has sought answers from selection committee members about the process, also said the report is”unsatisfactory.” Michele Davis, communications director in the majority leader’s office, said she hoped the report would satisfy others who were concerned about the process.”I think any straightforward rendering of the facts will make it very, very clear that these charges of bias are completely manufactured by Democratic partisans,”she said.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., was among those who questioned the process by which Wright was selected. When he made a December request for release of the materials relating to the process, Dingell said without them,”we have no means by which to evaluate to what degree, if any, the selection process was tainted by religious prejudice.” If O’Brien had been selected, he would have been the first Catholic chaplain of the House, whose chaplains have all been Protestant males since the post was established in 1789.

The new chaplain will replace the retiring Rev. James D. Ford, a Lutheran, who was chosen for the post in 1979.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Republican House members, Hastert and Armey said they were”disappointed and offended”by accusations of anti-Catholic bias.”Many members have expressed their disappointment that the House did not seize this opportunity to select the first Catholic chaplain in our history,”the Republican leaders wrote.”But just as this chaplain position was never closed to anyone based on his or her religious affiliation, it could also not be awarded to someone based solely on his or her religious affiliation.” Hastert and Armey also said Wright was selected because of his pastoral qualifications.”While each candidate brought a lot to the table, it was our opinion then, as it is today, that Dr. Wright had the best interpersonal and counseling skills, and would be the best person for the job,”they wrote.

Wright, who has served as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister in Washington, Atlanta, Pennsylvania and Maryland, is a retired pastor working in a specialized international ministry of the National Capital Presbytery.

O’Brien is the director of the Marquette University Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington and an adjunct professor of political science at Marquette University, a Catholic school whose main campus is in Milwaukee.

The House is expected to vote on Wright’s selection in February.

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