Democrats called for an inquiry into the House chaplain’s forced resignation Friday as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle struggled to explain the popular priest’s dismissal at the behest of House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“It's just a sign of the times here in Washington how crazy things are when the House chaplain is getting fired,” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said. “Nobody can seem to figure out what the heck happened.”
Ryan refused to publicly address his rationale in demanding Father Patrick Conroy’s resignation earlier this month, though he explained his decision to the House Republican Conference behind closed doors Friday – citing member concern over his pastoral care and a lack of chaplaincy service, such as proactively reaching out to a grieving member of Congress.
“He just said that there was dissatisfaction among members with Father Conroy, and that was it,” Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., told reporters. “So we need more of an explanation. 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.”
King said he has seen “no evidence why he should be removed,” calling the abrupt dismissal “unprecedented action.”
“To me, it would only be taken if there were very, very serious issues,” King said. “And the speaker said it was just because certain people felt he was not complying with their requests or was not giving good counseling. I never heard that from anyone.”
ABC News twice attempted to seek an explanation directly from Ryan in the Capitol Friday.
“You know me. I don’t walk and talk,” Ryan, R-Wis., said as he hurried back to his office. “I'm not a walker and talker.”
An aide to Ryan contends that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was kept abreast of the discussion throughout the process, though her aides insist Ryan moved ahead without her blessing.
“It's all poppycock. This is balderdash,” Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said of the notion that Ryan asked Pelosi. “Simply notifying someone of something and just unilaterally going and doing it is meaningless.”
“She said don't do this,” he added.
Democrats took to the floor Friday afternoon to call for the creation of a select committee to investigate why Ryan essentially fired Conroy, marking the first time in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives – dating to 1789 – that a chaplain has been fired.
The motion for an investigation was tabled – or rejected – 215-171.
Democrats believe Ryan grew frustrated by political messages in the chaplain’s daily prayer, though an aide to the speaker denied that Conroy was pushed out for a November 6 prayer warning of the potential impact of tax reform. Conroy told the New York Times that Ryan warned him to keep politics out of his prayers.
“I am unfamiliar with the chaplain's daily prayers being so political that anyone would take offense at them,” Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said. “I have not taken offense at them.”
“The speaker made it clear, and I totally trust him on this, that there were no politics involved,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said. “This is a position for someone to provide spiritual guidance. And that's what the issue is.”
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.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Roman Catholic, said it’s “sad to see” Conroy go.
“This is not a church. It's a public institution, but there's a time-honored tradition of having a chaplain and I think that's a very important position because the person is not just the mind and the heart, they're also a soul,” Fortenberry, R-Neb., said. “You just really wanna keep a chaplain decision out of any political dynamic.”
“It's really a black stain on the House of Representatives and on Paul Ryan, and he has to account for himself,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said. “It's not any kind of gracious way to treat a man of God who has served the House for seven years ably and well.”