In the battle over the Catholic Church's soul, Spokane's current and former bishops fight on different sides

click to enlarge The Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes silhouetted against a Spokane sunset. Under Bishops Daly and Cupich, the Diocese of Spokane has had to climb back from the bankruptcy and abuse scandals that defined the tenure of their predecessor, Bishop William Skylstad. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes silhouetted against a Spokane sunset. Under Bishops Daly and Cupich, the Diocese of Spokane has had to climb back from the bankruptcy and abuse scandals that defined the tenure of their predecessor, Bishop William Skylstad.

The so-called Summer of Shame had set the stage for November's meeting of U.S. bishops. There was a lot to answer for.

In July, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had become the highest-ranking Catholic leader ever to resign in a sex-abuse scandal in the United States. In August, a grand jury report charged that over 1,000 children had been victimized by more than 300 priests across the state of Pennsylvania.

So by November, when nearly 200 Catholic leaders — including Spokane's bishop, Thomas Daly, and his predecessor, Blase Cupich — gathered for the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the pressure to directly address the scandals was intense.

Outside the Baltimore conference hall, a dozen protesters waved signs with demands like "Reform" and "Repent Resign."

But as soon as the conference began, the bishops learned that the Vatican had barred them from holding votes on two proposals until after a February summit on sex abuse. Even before the announcement of the Vatican's dictate concluded, Cardinal Cupich was at the microphone to address the group.

In just six years, Cupich had risen from the bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, to the bishop of Spokane, to archbishop of Chicago. Today, he's a cardinal and one of the highest-profile champions of Pope Francis's vision for a more inclusive church.

"It is clear that the Holy See is taking seriously the abuse crisis," Cupich proclaimed. He argued the delay would put even more focus on such an important issue, and he called for the bishops to reconvene immediately after the February summit.

But to Spokane's current bishop, Thomas Daly, the delay made it look like they didn't care.

For the first time in his seven years of attending this conference of church leaders, Daly addressed the body from the floor. Glancing at notes on a scrap of yellow paper, he argued that his parishioners in Spokane were demanding to know why so many church leaders had failed to act on what they knew about McCarrick.

Maybe they themselves were "compromised," he speculated. Maybe it was because they were "ambitious clerics on the ecclesiastical escalator" who didn't want to jeopardize their careers.

And maybe, he suggested, some church leaders had conceded too much moral ground.

"Did this come to be because we have certain bishops who don't see anything wrong with consensual sex between adults?"

tweet this

"Did this come to be because we have certain bishops who don't see anything wrong with consensual sex between adults?" Daly says.

It was a clear illustration of how the seismic sex-abuse scandal had blown existing fault lines in the Catholic Church — over things like gay rights, divorce and abortion-supporting politicians — into a broad chasm.

And even as Cupich and Daly have both called for civility and healing, they've landed on opposite sides of that fissure: Liberal Catholics, who want a more modern church, celebrate Cupich. But to conservative and traditionalist Catholics, Cupich is a villain, and it's Bishop Daly — who recently told abortion-defending politicians they shouldn't take Communion — who represents what the church should be.

The division is the worst Daly has ever seen.

"I believe the church is divided," Daly says, "because we have people who want to compromise — and I'm talking about bishops — fundamental principles of morality that the church has remained very clear and steadfast on."


It was an NPR story that first drew Jeremiah Johnson, then a manager of Chairs Coffee in Spokane, to the Catholic Church. It was 2013, and Pope Francis was responding to a question about gay priests in the Vatican.

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" Francis told reporters.

It seemed like a marked contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who had once condemned homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil."

"Benedict never had that welcoming vibe," Johnson says. "I didn't feel, as a gay person, welcome."

Francis was a different kind of pope: He traded the glitziness of the position — the flashy car, the big hat, the swanky apartment — for the image of the "people's pope," a man who washed the feet of women and Muslims, who preached against unfettered capitalism as eagerly as Pope John Paul II had attacked communism.

The Catholic doctrine on sex, to put it mildly, clashes radically with modern culture: It condemns not only gay marriage and abortion, but premarital sex, pornography and divorce. Contraception is "intrinsically evil," masturbation is "gravely disordered" and artificial insemination is "gravely immoral." For decades, an internal debate has simmered inside the church: Does the Catholic Church need to loosen up to survive?

Just six months after replacing Benedict, Pope Francis criticized the church for being "obsessed" with issues like homosexuality and abortion, warning that if it didn't find a better balance, the entire edifice would "fall like a house of cards." And while traditional Catholics stressed that church teachings hadn't changed, gays who were drawn to Catholicism noticed.

When Johnson took his Rite of Christian Initiation classes before being baptized, he says three out of the four people in his class were gay. He recalls a nun telling him that some in the Catholic Church may be fearful of gay people, but here, in the Spokane diocese, he didn't have to worry. They weren't afraid.

After all, Spokane's bishop at the time, Blase Cupich, had long been singing from the same hymnbook as Francis. Like Francis, Cupich wasn't exactly a champion of gay rights. In 2012, he argued against gay marriage in a formal debate with then-Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder. But at the same time Cupich had characterized the pro-gay marriage side as being motivated by compassion, courage and a desire for equality. He condemned bullying, hatred and violence. For Johnson, that was enough.

"I know that I'm safe to come to a place where that I can find community and call home," Johnson says.

When Francis appointed Cupich the archbishop of Chicago in September 2014, Catholic journalist John Allen Jr., speculated that he could be the "American Pope Francis," noting that "the success or failure of the Francis revolution on these shores will rest to some extent on Cupich's shoulders."

"He's a powerful voice in the Catholic Church today. He is blunt, thoughtful and no-nonsense," says Father James Martin, a Jesuit author of Building A Bridge, a book about repairing the rift between the Catholic Church and gays and lesbians. "He's been very welcoming to the LGBT community."

Blase Cupich, in 2012, while serving as Spokane's bishop. He's now the archbishop of Chicago. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Blase Cupich, in 2012, while serving as Spokane's bishop. He's now the archbishop of Chicago.

Martin's book made him a target of hard-right, anti-gay Catholic groups with names like "Church Militant," and several of Martin's scheduled appearances were canceled. But Cupich rose to his defense and invited Martin to give a talk in Chicago, despite a small group of protesters who stood outside holding signs like "Fr. Martin's bridge to sin offends God."

"I definitely had a fix on [Cupich] as one of the most liberal theologically in the American hierarchy," Philip Lawler, editor of the conservative Catholic World News, tells the Inlander.

Lawler says that under Cupich, Chicago's "more conservative priests feel like they're under fire."

Last year, Cupich told a Chicago priest to abandon his plans to burn a rainbow flag. And after the priest did it anyway, Cupich had the priest temporarily removed from the parish, citing concern for the "welfare" of the priest and his congregation. Though the archdiocese claimed his removal was not directly connected to the burning, conservatives were furious.

Cupich had developed a similar reputation during his time in Spokane. In 2011, shortly after his installation here, news leaked out that Cupich was discouraging priests and seminarians from joining protests outside of abortion clinics. Yes, the Catholic Church was opposed to abortion in all circumstances, but in this "toxic and polarizing" political environment, Cupich argued that decisions were made around the "kitchen table" rather than outside of clinics.

"It caused a chilling effect for the seminarians, for the people who were praying," says Colleen Fetz, an usher at Spokane's Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. "When [Cupich] came in, the diocese basically stopped interacting with the pro-life people. They just cut them off."

In a 2012 interview with the Inlander, Cupich said his aim was to "defuse hot wires" on issues like abortion. But after Cupich left, the bishop replacing him — Thomas Daly — had other ideas.


For 15 years, Lili Navarrete had been attending Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Spokane. That stopped about nine months ago. Navarrete is Catholic — but she supports abortion rights. She works as a program coordinator at Planned Parenthood, and as she walks into the office many days, she sees her fellow Catholics praying the "Rosary For the Unborn," holding signs and protesting her place of work.

In fact, she says, back in June, one of the women who goes to her church walked into an open house at Planned Parenthood and began berating her in Spanish.

"I know your family. I know you go to church. What you're doing is a sin," Navarrete remembers the woman telling her. "No eres una Católica de verdad."

Translation: You're not a real Catholic.

A recent bulletin at Our Lady of Lourdes encouraged attending 40 Days for Life, an annual mobilization of anti-abortion protests, as a "Lenten offering." It also announced plans to hold a baby "shower" for unborn children at risk of abortion.

"Since Daly took office, I think he's just riling up people to be more anti-abortion," Navarrete says.

"The success or failure of the Francis revolution on these shores will rest to some extent on Cupich's shoulders."

tweet this

Sporting a Martin Sheen haircut and a pectoral cross hanging from his neck, Bishop Thomas Daly speaks with a pressing enthusiasm as he flits between pop culture jokes, impassioned laments on the state of the church, and miniature dissertations on Catholic history.

Daly grew up in San Francisco, one of the biggest staging grounds for the gay rights movement. But the city didn't make him a liberal. If anything, it did the opposite.

"I am shaped by coming from San Francisco, and seeing a once-Catholic city hijacked," Daly says. "I came from a place where I saw a shift, and increasingly, a city become so secularized and hostile to the church."

He's conservative, both politically and theologically. In his first press conference in Spokane, in March 2015, he unfurled his brand: "Compassion always," he says, frequently. "Compromise never."

So, on the one hand, he rebuffs gory anti-abortion signs, rude protesters and discourages priests from exclusively delivering condemnatory "shotgun blast" homilies. But he doesn't mince words.

In January, New York's Catholic governor signed a bill allowing abortions in the third-trimester to protect the health of the mother. Conservative Catholics across the county called for the church to sanction the governor.

On Feb. 1, Daly wrote a letter proclaiming that "allowing murder of children up to the moment of birth is evil" and that local Catholic politicians "who obstinately persevere in their public support for abortion should not receive Communion without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church."

"God alone is the author of life and for the civil government to sanction the willful murder of children is unacceptable," Daly wrote. "For a Catholic political leader to do so is scandalous."

The announcement rocketed across the Catholic press. The conservative National Catholic Register celebrated the letter with an article, "Spokane's Plain-Spoken Shepherd Makes Waves."

It had thrust Daly into intertwined Catholic fights over Communion and politics, and it again landed him on the opposite side as Cupich.

"We cannot politicize the Communion rail," Cupich told CBS Chicago in 2014. "I just don't think that works in the long run."

Communion has become one of the most contentious fights inside the church during Pope Francis's tenure. The sacrament, where Catholics believe bread and wine becomes the blood and body of Christ, has traditionally been reserved for baptized Catholics without any unabsolved grave sin. It wasn't just pro-abortion politicians barred from Communion. It was divorced and remarried couples.

But then, in 2016, Pope Francis released a document titled, "The Joy of Love," which appeared to open up the door to Communion for some remarried couples.

Cupich celebrated the document as "revolutionary" and a "paradigm shift," a move away from one-size-fits-all legalism and paternalism and toward something more complex and dependent on context.

Compared to Daly, Cupich's Catholicism can appear less handcuffed to the rigid constraints of traditional church doctrine and more guided by the nuances of the heart. According to the Catholic Herald, Cupich argued that a person's conscience, the voice of God, might support them "living at some distance from the Church's understanding of the ideal."

It mirrors the way Cupich talks about abortion. He condemns it. But he typically ties it other issues: Abortion is wrong, he argues, but so is racism. So is capital punishment. So is a broken immigration system or letting children go without health care.

"You could read an awful lot of Blase Cupich sermons without finding anything that would make a Democratic Party functionary the least bit uncomfortable," New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat writes in his book on Pope Francis.

As conservative as the Catholic Church could be on certain social issues, it was dramatically liberal on issues like health care, the environment and poverty. The church is as politically divided as the country: A Pew survey found that in the 2018 House of Representative elections, 50 percent of Catholics voted for Democrats, while 49 percent voted for Republicans.

"In many ways, Catholics are more liberal than the most liberal Democrats and more conservative the most conservative Republican," Martin says.

Daly sees a hierarchy of issues: The church cares about the environment, he says, but fighting against euthanasia represents a much more pressing priority than plastic bags.

On immigration, he's nuanced. On the one hand, he put out a statement condemning Trump's family-separation policy. Yet Daly also says he told the Washington State Catholic Conference of Bishops that the idea that "we can open the border and let everyone come" is naive.

As for abortion, which most Americans think should be legal in the case of rape or incest?

"There are never moral arguments to justify abortion," Daly says. "They're just not there."

Where Cupich has been known to get involved in politics — lobbying lawmakers, for instance, for tax credits for donors to private schools — Daly constantly warns against the church getting too cozy with politicians.

"There's always a price to pay," Daly says. "You never win. Politicians will use you."

Daly says he doesn't want government money for schools. Government money comes with strings. It limits what you can talk about and which stands you can take. He says a situation where a person in a same-sex marriage wanted to be in a leadership role of a Catholic charity or school would "pose a challenge." (It's unclear whether Daly's views have impacted the operation of Spokane Catholic Charities; CEO Rob McCann, who'd effusively praised Cupich in 2014, declined to comment on Daly.)

Where some bishops have been accused of blurring the lines of what is allowed and what is forbidden, Daly insists on drawing them. In a 2015 podcast, he cites Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, who'd been present at Daly's installation.

"Never allow humility and kindness to be mistaken as weakness, when one is leading as a shepherd," he recalls Vigano saying. "You're going to have to make tough decisions. They're not going to be popular."

Vigano practiced what he preached. In August, he released a letter that took every single controversial issue facing the Catholic Church and combined them into a single bombshell.


Vigano's 7,000-word-long letter, simply titled "Testimony," came less than two weeks after the Pennsylvania grand jury report; in it, he accuses major figures in Catholic leadership — including the pope — of being complicit in covering up McCarrick's crimes.

Vigano declares in the letter that he had personally warned Francis about McCarrick's abuses back in 2013, but that the pope had ignored his warning and instead allowed "the wolves to continue to tear apart the sheep of Christ's flock." In a line Vigano bolded and underlined, he calls for the pope himself to resign.

That would have been explosive by itself, even if the letter hadn't been an anti-gay, fire-and-brimstone fusillade against other church leaders, demanding that "the homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated."

Vigano dedicates a chunk of his screed to Cupich. He suggests that McCarrick aided Cupich's swift rise to archbishop. He accuses Cupich of being "blinded by his pro-gay ideology," of "ostentatious arrogance" and "insolence" for dismissing what Vigano sees as the role of homosexuality in the abuse crisis.

It ignited a wave of debate across the Catholic Church. Was Vigano a brave truth-teller, launching much-needed jeremiads against corrupt leaders? Or was he cynical operator, hijacking the horror of a sex-abuse scandal as an implement to punish political foes?

In Spokane, Daly echoed calls from other bishops to investigate the details of Vigano's letter.

click to enlarge Pope Francis tapped Blase Cupich to help organize last month's international summit on the Protection of Minors in the Church. - CATHOLIC CHURCH IN ENGLAND AND WALES PHOTO
Catholic Church in England and Wales photo
Pope Francis tapped Blase Cupich to help organize last month's international summit on the Protection of Minors in the Church.

"I've always respected Vigano tremendously," Daly says.

He says he knows that some claims of the Vigano's letter are true, and he argues that Vigano's critics have focused too much on attacking the messenger.

"They never addressed what he said. They just tried to destroy him personally," he says. "I find that very troubling."

Cupich, however, did respond. He took issue with the order of events in Vigano's timeline and claimed ignorance over whether McCarrick had a role in his appointment.

Cupich pointed to a report compiled by John Jay College, an exhausting investigation into 60 years of sex-abuse claims, that found that abusers weren't statistically any more likely to be gay than straight. The issue was access, not sexuality. The debate highlighted the sharp differences in the Catholic Church over the diagnosis — and the treatment — of the church's abuse crisis.

To those like Cupich and Martin, the crucial factor wasn't sexuality so much as "clericalism" — the elevation of priests and bishops over their parishioners.

"The cleric is believed and the victim is not. That's at the heart of it. It's privilege and power," Martin, the Jesuit author, explains. "It's a cultural thing that needs to be rooted out."

But in a video for the diocese filmed in front of a dark blue background, Daly passionately disputes that clericalism was the driving factor.

"There is truly a diabolical nature to this crisis," Daly said. "This is not clericalism. It is a crisis — an immoral crisis."

Daly agrees with Vigano that there's a "a gay component" to the abuse crisis.

"It's a greater issue of men who have not faithfully lived their vows," Daly says, "but you can't ignore the majority of the victims happen to be young men."

And, to a degree, Daly agrees with the theory summarized by gay French journalist Frédéric Martel in his recent innuendo-packed tell-all Closet of the Vatican: The closet drives the cover-up. Even under Pope Francis, church doctrine says men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should avoid becoming priests. Priests are less willing to blow the whistle on abusers if they, themselves, have secrets they don't want exposed, Martel argues.

But instead of agreeing with those calling on priests to be more open about their sexuality, Daly calls for the priests to double-down on their vows — and for the church to take violations of those vows more seriously.

"We have to uncover hidden sins and purify the church from clerical abuse and degeneracy," he said in his video statement.

In an August interview with NBC Chicago, meanwhile, Cupich agreed that there should be an investigation into McCarrick. But he also said it would be inappropriate for Francis to try to respond to every accusation in Vigano's letter.

"The pope has a bigger agenda," Cupich said. "He's gotta get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We're not going to go down a rabbit hole on this."

A rabbit hole?

To conservative Catholics, it looked like Cupich cared more about carbon footprints than corrupt cardinals. National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted that Cupich's statement was "beyond parody" while the American Spectator's George Neumayr joked that "it was cobbled together by a team of Onion writers."

Cupich responded by ordering priests in every parish in Chicago to read a statement accusing the NBC report of being deceptively edited. Some refused. It took nearly a month for Cupich to offer a full apology for his comments.

"It pains me deeply to think that my poor choice of words may have added to the suffering of victim-survivors," Cupich wrote in the Chicago Tribune, citing his record of listening to victims and publicly exposing predator priests.

In his interview with NBC, however, Cupich had also argued much of the current conflict was political.

He dismissed talk of a Catholic civil war as the work of a small group of insurgents who didn't like Francis's critiques of capitalism and the death penalty or his defense of the environment, the poor and migrants. And maybe, he suggested, they were just plain racist: "Quite frankly, they also don't like him because he's a Latino and that he is bringing Latino culture into the life of the church," Cupich said.

Last December, the right-wing forces aligned against Cupich got more ammunition: Journalists from Reveal and the Northwest News Network reported that, until 2016, numerous priests credibly accused of abusing women, girls and boys in isolated Native villages had been quietly warehoused at the Cardinal Bea House on the Gonzaga University campus.

In a statement, the Spokane diocese announced it shared the "concern of those who are angry and saddened" that the Jesuits placed the credibly accused priests at the facility without informing the Gonzaga community. The diocese also revealed what Cupich knew: Cupich had learned in 2011 that the Cardinal Bea House was home to at least seven credibly accused priests on "safety plans." But he didn't tell the public.

When Daly took over, he says, he wasn't informed.

To David Clohessy, former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Cupich made a serious mistake.

"I don't know, frankly, how Cupich sleeps at night, knowing that there were seven priests who were deemed so dangerous they couldn't work in parishes, and were put around unsuspecting teenagers and vulnerable young adults. All of whom were not warned," Clohessy says. "That's an unconscionable risk to take with people's lives."

The Chicago archdiocese did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails asking whether Cupich should have shared what he knew about Cardinal Bea House with the public. Catholic Church policies, however, generally discourage diocesan bishops from interfering too much in the affairs of separately governed religious orders like the Jesuits. Daly, however, says that when it comes to abuse, those policies need to change.

"The people are asking us, in light of this: Is it up to the responsibility of the bishop of the diocese to hold the religious orders accountable to public declaration?" Daly says. "Did the church have a responsibility? Now, I think, we do."

Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly argues that "the attitude of certain bishops and beyond has been arrogance. ... It's not listening to faith-filled people who say, 'we want to know the truth.'" - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly argues that "the attitude of certain bishops and beyond has been arrogance. ... It's not listening to faith-filled people who say, 'we want to know the truth.'"

In the meantime, right-wing groups like Church Militant and Complicit Clergy are using the Bea House scandal to call for Cupich's resignation. One group, the Roman Catholic Faithful, is brandishing the story as it travels from city to city, seeking dirt on Cupich's past. The group's president, Stephen Brady, has already been to Rapid City. He's already reserved a conference room, he says, for March 30 in Spokane.

"It's not an act of charity to allow one's cardinal to run headlong into hell," Brady says. "We predict we'll have him out of there, all by legal means... by the end of the year."


None of this controversy has prevented Cupich from being elevated as a leading voice on the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The pope tapped Cupich to help organize last month's international summit on the Protection of Minors in the Church.

The summit lasted four days, featured videotaped testimony of sex abuse victims and ended with the pope condemning abuse as the "manifestation of brazen, aggressive and destructive evil."

The summit didn't dig into the debate over gay priests, release any secret files from the Vatican, or codify any new policies.

Still, Cupich, with the pope watching, laid out a proposal to give top-ranking bishops like himself the power to investigate abuse claims against top church officials, with the assistance of lay people, instead of waiting for the Vatican to step in. Daly has also called for including lay people — law enforcement officers in particular — in abuse investigations.

But the church has made promises of reform before. At the summit, a CNN reporter stood up and said she'd been there at a similar summit in 2002. But back then, she pointed out, the reassuring face — the one who was promising that the coverup would never happen again — was now-disgraced abuser Cardinal McCarrick.

"I, and everyone else, has to be held accountable," Cupich responded. Yet in his keynote speech at the conference, Cupich said he recognized how badly the credibility of the bishops had been damaged.

"They simply can't comprehend how we as bishops are often blinded to sex abuse," Cupich said.

Indeed, even the most devout Catholic parishioners have been left reeling by the Summer of Shame. Fetz, the usher at Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane, says her son is studying to be a priest, a Franciscan friar.

"It's excruciating at times for him," Fetz says. "At one point he just said, 'I'm kind of ticked at God for calling me at this time.'"

She says she's seen the anger from loyal parishioners. She's heard them talk about withholding donations. She doesn't think that's the answer.

"The truth is, if we are practicing Catholics, this is our shame, too," Fetz says. "We're part of a screwed-up family."

Daly continues to argue that loosening the church's standards for morality represents a "recipe for disaster." As he gives homilies attacking abortion, however, he acknowledges that the church's moral authority to condemn it has been devastated by "wolves in sheep's clothing."

The solution? Reformation, Daly says. A return to holiness. Parishioners demanding and driving change. And a lot of prayer and fasting.

Toward the end of an evening service at Our Lady of Lourdes in February, Father Darrin Connall reads anonymous prayers from parishioners. There are prayers for help, for arm and neck pain, for cerebral palsy, for one parishioner's son to stop playing video games all night.

But others echo the same prayers that have been offered up in cathedrals for decades, prayers about the church itself, prayers that still have yet to be fully answered.

"A thorough cleansing and renewal of our Catholic Church," Connall says, reading one prayer. And then he reads another, calling "for all division in this diocese to be purged." ♦

click to enlarge Daniel Walters
Daniel Walters

Daniel Walters has been writing for the Inlander since 2008. In that time, he’s written about the alt-right, his evangelical parents’ rejection of Donald Trump and a local monastery’s fight with a developer. He can be reached at 509-325-0634 ext. 263 or via email at

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

The Rum Rebellion: Prohibition in North Idaho @ Museum of North Idaho

Through Oct. 29, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • or