Patrick Conroy has served as House chaplain for the past six-and-a-half years. He’s tasked with providing an opening prayer before each day’s session and being available should members or staff need spiritual counsel. He spoke with Maren McInnes late last month to discuss the recent sexual scandals, the “War on Christmas,” and spirituality on the Hill.
What has been your reaction to all the news regarding sexual misconduct on the Hill?
When I came here, the principal question I was asked was whether or not I had ever done anything that would embarrass the House. The question was, as a Catholic priest, had I ever abused a child. I know what it’s like to walk around with people assuming you’re a child molester because you’re a priest. And I can tell you how priests were treated then and are still treated—this is child’s play around here. Now, does that mean it’s not serious? Absolutely not. In retrospect, I would say the bishops overreacted, acted too quickly, and if somebody was falsely accused it ruined their priesthood and their career for five years. … So the rush to have everybody resign or not run—I personally … [think] let’s not be too hasty. I understand the mood, and people want these people out right now. But the institution needs to be careful not to lose good men and women without confirmation that there’s not political … or personal motivation.
Have you been approached by members or staffers with a sexual scandal? What was your approach in dealing with it?
Not sexual. Workplace abuse, though. … I called the office that takes such things and I called the speaker’s office and I said, “I got this complaint from a chief of staff for one of the members and I don’t know for the sake of the House … what do you do with this?” They said they’d get back to me if there was anything further they thought I could do. But I still don’t know what the answer is to that. When I interviewed for this position, I told [then-Speaker John Boehner], “If somebody comes to me with something, do you want me to go to the D.C. police, the Capitol Police, or do you want me to come to you?” He says, “No, you come to me.” All right. What do I do after I’ve done that? Do I follow up? Which is what I asked him, because they were asking me why I didn’t follow up more with child abuse when I reported somebody. Because you don’t follow up with an archbishop. You don’t follow up with the speaker. … I’m waiting for the day when an adult comes in and tells me that when they were a page they were abused. I’m waiting for that day.
Is there a spiritual crisis in Congress now, or have these types of issues always existed below the surface?
They’ve always existed. Any uneven power situation is ripe for abuse. I would hope that this current crisis, if you will, will result in both parties, both conferences, having their own protocols to make sure people are heard and protected. If the House doesn’t police itself, I don’t know who does. … Think about it: Who are the people that run for office? Are they all highly skilled in every endeavor? No! They’re not. Many of them, I can tell you, don’t know how to say hello in the hallway, let alone work with office people that maybe they don’t think they have to listen to.
We’ve heard lots of noise about the “War on Christmas.” Do you see any evidence of that? Or is Christmas alive and well on the Hill?
I’ve never seen any evidence of a war on Christmas; I’m sorry. What the heck is the “War on Christmas” other than a cheap line at a political rally? Honestly. Christmas does not need defending.
When your predecessor was named, there was some controversy over having a Catholic chaplain versus a Protestant. Do you sense any tensions within Congress between denominations or faiths?
My predecessor was here for 11 years. He never grew a set of horns. I think an awful lot of the hesitancy and the fear was dissipated because it came out of mistaken notions or maybe even ignorance or greater religious prejudice than many people thought they had. I would say there are probably still members, and maybe many of them, who are less than comfortable with my being Catholic, but I don’t think that’s traumatic for them and I don’t think that it causes a crisis, because you don’t need the chaplain until you need him. My presence is not intrusive. I do think though … that America is still quite uncomfortable with Muslims, and truth be told I don’t know how long it’ll be before there could possibly be a Jewish rabbi as a chaplain.