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Catholic named House chaplain after withdrawal of first choice

charges of bias in the original selection of a Protestant “slander” and an “unseemly political game.”

After announcing Presbyterian pastor Charles Wright, the original choice of the House of Representatives leadership, had withdrawn, Hastert said in a speech from the floor he was naming Daniel Coughlin, vicar of the Archdiocese of Chicago, as chaplain. Coughlin is the first Catholic selected to the post.

Hastert’s announcement ended a bitter four months in which Catholics outside the chamber and some members of the House, led by Democrats, had accused Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, and other Republicans of anti-Catholic bias.

In his speech, Hastert refuted those charges, saying at one point, “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.”

The charges began after Wright, who has had a lengthy ministry in Washington, was named chaplain instead of Timothy O’Brien, a Catholic priest at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Wright and O’Brien were two of the three candidates recommended to the House leadership by a bipartisan search committee of House members. Armey voted for Wright, while Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri preferred O’Brien. Hastert chose Wright.

When the selection of Wright was announced, accusations were made the decision was based on anti-Catholicism. The selection committee had voiced its strongest support for O’Brien, critics said.

In his speech, Hastert told the House the candidates were not ranked when they were given to the three leaders. He was not seeking a person from a particular denomination or with a specific doctrine, Hastert said. He was “most impressed with the pastoral experience and warmth” of Wright, the speaker said.

“My friends, in all of my years in this Congress, I have never seen a more cynical and more destructive political campaign,” Hastert said. “That such a campaign should be waged in connection with the selection of the House chaplain brings shame on this House.”

Some critics remained upset with the speaker.

His charge the accusations were based on politics “offends me,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif., told The Washington Post. “I did not do this to tear the House asunder. I thought they were very important questions to be raised.” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said in a prepared statement his organization had “no interest in fighting this fight any longer, and we commend House Speaker Dennis Hastert for bringing this chapter to an end.”

Donohue, who led criticism of the selection process from the outside, commended the selection of Coughlin and said, “All along we have said that our only interest has been in assuring that the selection process be given strict scrutiny by Republicans and Democrats alike. We have never had any interest in the outcome, only the process.”

The choice of a Catholic by a House speaker was historic, but the manner in which Coughlin was named was a return to a previous method. While some previous speakers have appointed chaplains on their own, the method that resulted in the naming of Wright included what Hastert called “the largest and most bipartisan search committee” in the House’s history. In naming Coughlin, the speaker did so without such input.

Coughlin has had 40 years of ministerial experience, most recently as a counselor to priests in the archdiocese, Hastert said. He replaces retiring chaplain James Ford, a Lutheran.

The House chaplain is responsible for opening each day’s session in prayer and for providing pastoral ministry to representatives and their staff members.

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