- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert Thursday named a Roman Catholic priest from his home state of Illinois to be the new House chaplain, ending a bruising battle with Democrats who accused Republicans of being anti-Catholic.

"I have never seen a more cynical or destructive campaign, and that such a campaign should be connected with the selection of the House chaplain brings shame on this House," Mr. Hastert said in naming the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin to the House's top spiritual post.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, called it the end of a "sad" chapter in the House's history. Mr. Pomeroy said he never suspected religious bias but objected to a process that purported to be bipartisan yet ignored Democrats in the end.

After his confirmation in the House, Father Coughlin, vicar for priests in the Chicago archdiocese and the first Catholic priest to hold the position, said he was overwhelmed with the warm welcome he received.

"Everyone's remarks were very pleasing and welcoming," Father Coughlin told The Washington Times. "They expressed gratitude and hope that the rough times of this can be put behind us and we can once again be one house under God, and one nation under God."

Mr. Hastert said he was looking for a priest with extensive pastoral and counseling experience and that his selection was not based on religious doctrine.

"Daniel Coughlin is a Catholic. That does not make him more nor less qualified for the job," Mr. Hastert said.

"I hope his appointment will help us to heal and that it will bring a sense of pride to the millions of Catholic men and women around this country who have had legitimate feelings of past discrimination, which some in this House have sought to manipulate," Mr. Hastert said.

Although the speaker has the sole power to hand pick the House chaplain, Mr. Hastert created a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to interview prospective candidates. The committee selected three candidates, and Mr. Hastert initially selected the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, in December.

The Rev. Tim O'Brien, a Catholic priest who was passed over for the position, immediately criticized the selection committee and Republicans, saying he was "convinced that if I were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate."

Democrats followed suit and for the past four months have accused Republicans of bias against Catholics. However, they backed off those accusations when Mr. Hastert made his surprise announcement on the House floor.

"I do not easily take in stride carelessly tossed accusations of bigotry," Mr. Hastert said.

"Where I come from, such slander is an ugly business. I can only conclude that those who accuse me of anti-Catholic bigotry either don't know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making these accusations," Mr. Hastert said.

Charges that Republicans were anti-Catholic also spilled over into the presidential campaign last month when Sen. John McCain accused Texas Gov. George W. Bush of being anti-Catholic for speaking at Bob Jones University and not condemning the college leader's anti-Catholic statements.

Republicans said they were also angry that Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt initially agreed that Mr. Wright should have the job but then changed his mind and exploited the issue for political gain with Catholics.

Mr. Wright's nomination had been stalled by Democrats for months. He withdrew himself as a candidate Wednesday in the hopes of ending the political feuding.

"In these weeks following my appointment, anti-religious charges of the selection process caused dissension among the members and wounds between Catholics and other people of faith across our nation," Mr. Wright said in a letter to Mr. Hastert.

"Let us be thankful that God is not an independent, not a Democrat and not a Republican. He is for all of us," Mr. Wright said.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican and a Baptist preacher, said the selection of Father Coughlin ends an "ugly chapter in the people's house, and hopefully this is all behind us."

Mr. Gephardt said he had a different view from Mr. Hastert's and Majority Leader Dick Armey's on how the selection process advanced but denied calling Republicans anti-Catholic.

"I never said or ever believed there was bias of any kind in the making of this selection. I never said that," the Missouri Democrat said.

Mr. Gephardt said he was "very sorry we have come to this point" and suggested the process for selecting chaplains in the future be refined.

"I respect the speaker's choice, and we will do everything in our power to welcome him and make his service here a positive force for every member of this body," Mr. Gephardt said.

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