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What the Devil won't tell you

Kicanas retires having steered Tucson Diocese through its worst time

Came here to clean up 'pedophilia problem'

Bishop Gerald Kicanas can now take some time and watch some White Sox games.

Thank God he wasn't a Cubs fan.

The outgoing head of the Diocese of Tucson gave his final mass this week and begins what I would call a well-earned retirement because there still is a Catholic Diocese of Tucson. When he took over, it was in serious, serious trouble.

A 2,000-year-old fraternity that was powerful, insular and self-entitled had to get open and contrite in a hurry. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't do anything in a hurry. I think they're still getting around to reading the instruction book for the abacus (which is still in the box).

In a church where "modernization" is defined as a pope dragging the Vatican kicking and screaming into the 18th century, Kicanas was at least at home in the late 20th.

Some bishops treated openness and accountability with a curled lip and heavy feet. Kicanas moved diagonally with vim and vigor because Catholic Tucson's future depended on it.

Kicanas left because canon law requires bishops must submit their resignation letters to the Vatican before their 75th birthday. That was in August. It's exactly how he arrived in late 2001, when Bishop Manuel Moreno retired at such an interesting time.

Interesting, that is, if we can define the term as existential crisis rocking what was once the "Universal Church" to its molten core. In 2002, Kicanas arrived to be a co-adjutor bishop and serve alongside Moreno as the pedophile priest scandal began to erupt nationally. This was the days when the diocese was working through a legal settlement over four priests whom the church admitted had molested kids.

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I am not a Catholic but an agnostic who thinks organized religion gets a bad rap. As much as anything, it builds community. As a political reporter, I can attest that religion ain't necessary to A) have some pretty kooky ideas about what's what or B) possess dictatorial self-importance and seek to project it upon the general population.

Bishop to King's One

The scandal is largely known as a "pedophile priests" scandal or a "sex abuse" scandal. Those of us who got to cover the story for more than 45 minutes quickly realized that wasn't the case at all. Pedophiles populate a bunch of vocations. The priesthood is just one of them. That the bishops knew about it and turned a blind eye transformed instances of abuse into an infestation of trauma to victims. The Catholic prelates created the safe space for pedophilia to thrive.

Predatory priests did not need prayer to get over it. They did not suffer from a drinking problem that established their behavior. Though, these were often the prescriptions offered to fix the priests.

They acted on a sexual attraction to prepubescents and when their bosses found out, those bishops looked first to protect the priests and the church itself. They did not call the cops. Church leaders rid themselves of troubleseome priests by shipping them to our little patch of Sonoran Desert. So they sent them off to "sleepy" Tucson. Naturally, they put those priests to work in ministry and the predation continued.

Then the church crossed paths with local attorney Lynne Cadigan, who found herself representing 10 clients who claimed to be victims of the church. She was the wrong person to mess with because if Cadigan were an alligator wrestler, she'd sell more hand bags than Louis Vuitton. As it was, she sued the diocese into bankruptcy. She eventually represented more than 100 plaintiffs and sued the diocese so hard she got settlements for clients after the statute of limitations expired.

Kicanas came in to work alongside Moreno and, as they would call it in corporate buzzwords, "facilitate a transition." A whole bunch of Catholics at the time figured Moreno just didn't have it in him to bust the kind of balls that needed to be busted to clean up the diocese. Bishops are often celebrated for their piety and Catholic wisdom but the position requires a degree of whip-cracking. Moreno had plenty of piety but was largely cowed by those around him. He was just not constitutionally cut out to be a heavy.

When your best attribute is that you believe the best in people, it helps not to be surrounded by human disasters. Moreno didn't have that luxury.

Moreno did kick start a process but Kicanas — with a big assist from diocese spokesman Fred Allison — made the promise happen.

Gerry from the block

It's here that — given how my last column was reduced to simple argument by some who don't want to think too hard about things — I feel the need to point out: I am not condoning pedophilia or the church's general response to the charges. I'm saying that here in Tucson, Kicanas kicked some ass.

In Kicanas, the church had a Lebanese kid from Chicago who was part of the modern world and, more to the point, was a White Sox fan. I'm going to be generalize wildly but the situation didn't call for a North Shore Cubs fan with a chablis in hand. It wasn't a moment for a flowery Latinate outrage (like "possess dictatorial self-importance and seek to project it upon the general population...")  It required to-the-point Saxonisms delivered by a kid from the block one syllable at a time.

That was Kicanas. He moved diagonally with vim and vigor.

In 2002, I flew to Dallas to cover the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting that wrestled with how to root out bad priests and found myself among others who routinely ran into brick walls covering their diocesan woes. A bunch of the press was jealous that I got my calls returned from the diocese and the bishop.

It was a fascinating time to cover the Catholic Church at this time and place. The church had never had to face this kind of public scrutiny — not ever. It was worth about 500 Ph.D. dissertations to witness church leaders grapple with accountability to the laity and the outside world.

Plenty of other bishops still clung to the cloistered notions of the priest as shepherd. He is the leader whose devotion to God and moral place leading the flock shall not be questioned. These bishops scowled during the whole of the weekend and came off somewhat perturbed the laity would hold them to account — let alone Protestants.

Kicanas took over in 2003 and convened a council from the flock that oversaw new changes in policy, first and foremost being "the first call is to the police when an allegation is made." That alone makes the case public record. Beyond that, the diocese agreed to name names once the charges were found to be credible and since the police were looking into it, credibility could not be internally dismissed.

Don't take my word for it, though. Take counsel for the plaintiffs.

Cadigan said the handling of diocese sex-abuse cases changed “substantially” once Kicanas replaced Moreno.

“Kicanas has made a serious commitment to changing the diocese,” she said.

Was he perfect? No. Worse, he could be nuanced. He defended the idea that pedophile priests should be kept in the church and not just dismissed into the world (where the statue of limitations hits a very real criminal wall). Americans prefer to smash complex, uncomfortable subjects with a big rock. The press is the worst offender. I remember Kicanas pointing out that it might be better to keep these priests under church supervision than just tell them to go wander the Earth. That's a good point. It would have been a better argument if the church had done anything but a piss-poor job supervising them in the first place.

Destiny denied, legacy secured

Of course, this wasn't all Kicanas did while in charge. The man can deliver a homily. When he got going, (they called it the Kicanas Leap because he appeared spring-loaded when the spirit moved) he was the best public speaker I've seen in Southern Arizona. When he commanded an audience to "stir," in the name of those who needed help, brothers and sisters, you stirred.

That kind of agitation wound up costing him big. He was Hillary before Hillary was Hillary.

In 2009, Kicanas was elected vice president of the national bishops' conference. Think the American Medical Association of Catholic prelates. For 40 years the bishop elected to the veep slot became the national president the next go around. Kicanas broke that streak. Actually, it was broken over his head.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, out of that backwater archdiocese covering Manhattan and the outer boroughs, swooped in and beat him for the gig.

The institutional Catholic press went bonkers over this slight to Kicanas in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter.

One columnist even blamed an upstart Tea Party movement among the bishops for slapping back "a liberal" like Kicanas.

Now, we gotta define our terms here. The term "liberal" applies to a bishop only in the most, well, "liberal" of definitions. Kicanas isn't pro-choice and doesn't carry the water for the cause of gay marriage. He just didn't make his whole Catholicism about them.

Early in his career he had signed off on a priest who turned out to be a pedophile. Okay, that's trouble. But the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law's wing (of "Spotlight" infamy) used the charge against him is a bit galling.

Maureen Fiedler, a nun and national radio personality, said as much at the time:

The real issue for these conservatives was not sex abuse, but the fact that they apparently could not stomach a bishop like Kicanas who might actually give some voice to the social justice teachings of the church, rather than using his office exclusively as a megaphone in the culture wars — specifically on the issues of gay marriage and abortion.

I could argue that maybe that's because his diocese covers the Arizona border and even the Vatican advocates for the rights of immigrants. Those migrants were crossing the border and more than occasionally dying in the desert of Kicanas' diocese. So yeah, maybe he had a thing or two to say about the issue.

He was also active in ecumenical work, meaning linking up with followers of other faiths to confront community challenges.

None of this sat well with more than half of his colleagues. So he didn't get to be the guy in charge across the national stage. He did get to act locally.

And the Diocese of Tucson is better off for it.

Looking for a perfect bishop is probably like looking for a perfect husband. They only exist after they are dead and stop leaving socks on the floor.

Kicanas' way of doing things didn't always sit well with people. For all his failings, Moreno inspired much more personal loyalty because he was a sweetheart to a fault.

But the kid from Chicago had one very important job to do — the most important task ever required of a bishop — and he did it as well as it could be done in an institution that self-aggrandizing.

He earned retirement. Vaya con dios, Gerry.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Diocese pushes for immigration reform after a 2014 mass held at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales.


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