05/18/2011 02:50 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2011

House Chaplain Nominee Has Clear Conscience Despite 'Firestorm'

By Nancy Haught
Religion News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Less than a week after the announcement that he had been nominated to become the next chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Rev. Patrick Conroy found himself at the center of what he calls "a firestorm."

First, he's a Jesuit priest from the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which recently agreed to a $166 million bankruptcy settlement involving more than 500 active claims of sexual or physical abuse.

"It's a pretty clear case of guilt by association," Conroy said, "but my conscience is clear."

Secondly, critics have questioned whether Conroy failed to follow up on a letter he wrote in 1986, which later resulted in the 2002 resignation of a Washington state priest accused of sexual abuse. "I did what I was supposed to do," Conroy said.

If approved, as expected, Conroy, 60, will be the 60th chaplain, and second Catholic priest, to serve the House.

As Conroy prepares to leave Jesuit High School, where he's been teaching theology since 2004, he talked about how he got his new job, the chaplaincy and the controversy around his selection.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

I'm guessing this opening wasn't posted on Craigslist. How did you hear about it?

After the election, the current chaplain, Father (Daniel) Coughlin, let Speaker (John) Boehner know that he wanted to retire. It's the speaker's prerogative to nominate the chaplain, but it's a bipartisan appointment.

Speaker Boehner graduated from Xavier, a Jesuit university in Cincinnati. And Mrs. (Nancy) Pelosi's husband and son were Georgetown Hoyas. Mr. Boehner wanted to have a Jesuit among the candidates for chaplain.

The president of the Jesuits contacted all the provinces. I don't know if it was an aligning of the planets, a changing of the wind, serendipity or the grace of God, but I was available. That was in November.

Did you interview for the job?

I met with two staffers from Mr. Boehner's office and two from Mrs. Pelosi's office. It was a very pleasant interview that lasted about 75 minutes. Then I returned to teaching freshmen theology.

There were five candidates, and I made the cut. On May 4, I had a half-hour interview with Mr. Boehner and Mrs. Pelosi and their four staffers. Then I stepped out of the room. They talked and they offered me the position.

What was the hardest question they asked you?

Well, it wasn't hard, but it was uncomfortable: If I was selected, was there anything in my past that might become an embarrassment to the speaker?

I am a Jesuit, a member of the Oregon Province that was sued for clergy abuse, and some of the cases came from the Colville Indian Reservation, where I had worked. I was never accused, but my name might turn up in court documents.

The second thing was a letter I wrote to an archbishop about a young man who said a priest had propositioned him. I didn't hear back from the archbishop. There was no crime committed. I did what I was supposed to do, but the letter did come out later.

Do you think the subject of clergy abuse will follow you everywhere you go?

It might. I have not heard of any Jesuit accused of abuse (that occurred) since I joined in 1973. But even knowing that, it's hard.

How is a chaplain's role different from that of a pastor?

As chaplain, I won't be responsible for the religious life of the people working on Capitol Hill, how they practice their faith in their respective congregations. A chaplain is more like a counselor.

So you won't pray before a session in the name of Jesus?

I never pray in the name of Jesus -- except when I'm doing something Catholic -- saying Mass, for example.

I read online that the U.S. House chaplain earns more than $167,000 a year. Is that right?

That's in the ballpark.

What will you do with your paycheck?

Jesuit communities charge a per diem. In Washington, D.C., it might be $50 a day. I'll pay that. And I'll keep enough for my working budget and the rest will go to my province. The Jesuits paid for my education. The Jesuits pay for my health care, for my housing, for my transportation when I need it.

Will it be hard to say goodbye to your students?

My parents divorced when I was 8 years old. I have been saying goodbye all my life. But I won't be going out of their lives at all.

Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.