Drama continues after House chaplain rescinds resignation letter requested by Ryan

House chaplain Father Patrick Conroy rescinded his April 15 resignation letter.

May 4, 2018, 11:00 PM

The drama over the House chaplain appears to be far from over.

After rescinding his resignation, claiming politics and anti-Catholic bias were behind efforts to force him out, House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy says if House Speaker Ryan wants him gone he’ll have to fire him outright.

Trying to quell the controversy, Ryan has accepted Conroy’s decision to stay on the job saying they will meet next week in order to “move forward.”

But Democrats are pressing ahead with their demands for an investigation into Conroy's complaints about how he's been treated.

In a new letter to Ryan, Conroy said the speaker never spoke with him in person or sent him any correspondence, but that shortly before his resignation, the speaker’s chief of staff came to him and said Ryan wanted his letter of resignation.

"I inquired as to whether or not it was 'for cause,' and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like, 'maybe it's time that we had a Chaplain that wasn't a Catholic,'" Conroy wrote.

He continued: "At that point, I thought that I had little choice but to resign, as my assumption was that you had the absolute prerogative and authority to end my term as House chaplain.”

Conroy, a Jesuit priest, has been chaplain for the past 11 years. He said he wants to serve out his current two-year term, and "possibly beyond," unless he is officially fired.

Ryan chief of staff Jonathan Burks said in a statement, obtained by a reporter for The Hill, that he remembered his conversation with Conroy differently.

"I strongly disagree with Father Conroy’s recollection of our conversation. I am disappointed by the misunderstanding, but wish him the best as he continues to serve the House,” Burks said.

Ryan released his own statement Thursday, seeking to explain his thought process. “My original decision was made in what I believed to be the best interest of this institution. To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves,” he said.

The drama over the chaplain’s position began on April 15, when Conroy submitted a letter saying that as Ryan requested, he would be leaving his position at the end of May. Shortly thereafter Conroy spoke out, saying in an interview that he was asked to resign for reasons that were “unclear” to him.

Democrats contended for weeks that Conroy’s dismissal was due to a prayer he delivered last year as lawmakers prepared to begin consideration of tax reform – irking Republicans. In a November 6 prayer to open the day’s House session, he warned members to “be mindful” of economic disparities among social classes, and cautioned legislators not to pick “winners and losers under new tax laws.”

A senior GOP leadership aide maintained that “there was not a specific prayer” that led to Ryan’s decision to request Conroy’s resignation.

While the decision to ask for Conroy’s resignation was Ryan’s, a senior House GOP aide and a senior aide to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was consulted throughout the personnel decision.

PHOTO: Father Patrick Conroy speaks during a memorial service at the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol Sept. 27, 2017, in Washington.
Father Patrick Conroy speaks during a memorial service at the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol Sept. 27, 2017, in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

But the Pelosi aide said that while she had been in the loop about the decision, she “made it clear to the Speaker that she had only received positive comments about Father Conroy’s service from Members,” and “also made it clear to Speaker Ryan that she disagreed with this decision.”

Many other lawmakers, including Republicans, came to Conroy’s defense after his resignation was made public, and demanded answers for the dismissal.

Last Friday, 147 Democrats and one Republican -- Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, sent a letter to Ryan requesting information on his decision.

“The sensitive nature of this situation requires a description of the process followed to arrive at the decision and a justification for that decision,” the letter states. “We believe that, absent such details, questions will inevitably arise about the politicization of the process for hiring and dismissing a House chaplain.”

Democrats also sought to establish a select committee to investigate the rationale for the dismissal, which would have been the first time in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives -- dating to 1789 -- that a chaplain had been fired.

Earlier that week Ryan had refused to publicly address his rationale to demand Father Patrick Conroy’s resignation, though he explained his decision to the House Republican Conference behind closed doors -- citing member concern over his pastoral care and a lack of chaplaincy service.

But that wasn’t enough for Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who told reporters after the meeting, “I'm not aware of any discontent or any criticism and to be the first House Chaplain removed in the history of Congress in the middle of the term raises serious questions and I think we deserve more of an explanation and why was there political pressure.”

In his letter from this week, Conroy noted the apparent lack of consultation with other House members before his attempted ouster.

"It appears the decision was made to minimize the input of members, and executed surreptitiously to overcome what was likely to be their overwhelming objection. It appears intentionally underhanded, and that is deeply disappointing!” he wrote.

Pelosi released her own statement Thursday, saying she was happy that Conroy would be staying on as chaplain.

“Speaker Ryan’s decision to accept Father Conroy’s decision to rescind his resignation and finish his term is welcome news. However, many distressing questions must still be answered about the motivations behind Father Conroy’s unwarranted and unjust dismissal.”

ABC's John Parkinson and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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