RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Catholic leaders gather today, in Baltimore, to choose their new leader. They're expected to elect, as the next president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports there's a flurry of debate around what's usually a routine decision.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Bishop Kicanus is seen by many as an easygoing diplomat who prefers digging into policy papers over hogging the spotlight. And according to Rocco Palmo, a close observer of the Catholic Church, he's popular.
Mr. ROCCO PALMO: In his diocese, he is seen as one of the most effective bishops in the country.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Palmo says Kicanas earned that reputation after he became bishop of Tucson in 2003, where he inherited a diocese rife with sex abuse allegations and on the brink of bankruptcy.
Mr. PALMO: While some dioceses have really struggled with bankruptcy, and it's been an acrimonious time, the Tucson bankruptcy - under Kicanas' leadership -has been seen as a national model.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: So that's one view of Kicanas. Another is held by Terry McKiernan, who runs the watchdog group BishopsAccountability.org. McKiernan says practically every bishop in the pipeline for the presidency has been tainted by the sex abuse scandal.
Mr. TERRY MCKIERNAN (BishopAccountability.org): But there are specific reasons why Kicanas worries us.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Those reasons involve Daniel McCormack, a priest who was accused of molesting nearly two dozen boys. He's now in jail. Kicanas was rector of the seminary in Illinois that McCormack attended. And according to news reports, Kicanas admitted knowing about three instances of sexual misconduct: two of them with adults, and one with a minor.
Mr. MCKIERNNAN: Kicanas nevertheless approved McCormack for ordination -disastrously, as it turned out - on the grounds that it would be unfair to do otherwise, with the explanation that his behavior was really part of the developmental process, quote-unquote, and that he had learned from the experience.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Bishop Kicanas flatly denies he knew about the minor. In a statement last week, he said, quote: At no time while McCormack was a seminarian did I receive any allegation of pedophilia or child molestation against him. Kicanas said his newspaper quotes were taken out of context. Rocco Palmo says the details about the case may be unclear, but the way the allegations are being used is not. Kicanas is known as a moderate, and this story is being circulated by conservative Catholic blogs and newspapers.
Mr. PALMO: The pickup has come largely from the Catholic right, who clearly would have qualms about a progressive president.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: And who didn't make a fuss when Cardinal Francis George - a conservative - was elected president three years ago. Palmo notes that Cardinal George was far more involved in the McCormack scandal than Kicanas is alleged to be. Terry McKiernan says that brings up another problem. It's practically automatic that if a bishop is elected vice president of the conference, he'll be elected president three years later - even if new allegations come to light.
Mr. MCKIERNAN: And I think if the process became more genuinely an election, and less of a coronation, we would be getting better people in these positions.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But Father Thomas Reese, at Georgetown University, doubts that'll happen this year.
Father THOMAS REESE (Georgetown University): It would be extraordinary; it would be shocking. Every vice president, except one, has been elected president, and that vice president was simply too old.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: And Reese says the bishops are not likely to change course because of a few news reports.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.