Ryan explains decision to dismiss House chaplain

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Soaring deficits could put Trump in a corner if there's a recession Paul Ryan moving family to Washington MORE (R-Wis.) told the House Republican Conference Friday morning that he fired Chaplain Patrick Conroy because members felt like their “pastoral needs” were not being met and not for a political reason, according to several Republicans inside the room.

Ryan told members his decision to ask Conroy to step aside had nothing to do with politics, a policy conflict or a prayer.

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A number of lawmakers had approached Ryan and told him they needed someone in the chaplain’s role who could offer more “spiritual counseling,” according to Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterDuncan Hunter's attorneys look to delay trial by over a month Duncan Hunter gets another GOP challenger Overnight Defense: House votes to block Trump arms sales to Saudis, setting up likely veto | US officially kicks Turkey out of F-35 program | Pentagon sending 2,100 more troops to border MORE (R-Calif.), who attended the meeting.

Ryan agreed, he told the members. 

Rep. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonThe 9 House Republicans who support background checks Al Green says impeachment is 'only solution' to Trump's rhetoric Trump primary challenger Bill Weld responds to rally chants: 'We are in a fight for the soul of the GOP' MORE (R-Mich.) also told The Hill that Ryan insisted during the private meeting that the dismissal was not done for any politician reasons, but because it was just “time for a change.”

Conroy had replaced Fr. Daniel P. Coughlin in May of 2011. Coughlin, the first Catholic priest to hold the chaplain post, had been in the spot for more than 11 years.

The Hill reported Thursday that Ryan forced out Conroy, who had been in the role for seven years.

The news that Conroy had been pushed out was a surprise to many members who had thought that his retirement announced last week was voluntary. 

Democratic lawmakers have said that they believe the reason that Conroy was pushed out was a prayer he gave that was perceived as critical of the GOP tax law.

Conroy later echoed a similar sentiment in an interview with The New York Times.

Some Catholic Republicans spoke up during the open-microphone portion of the meeting and pressed Ryan on his explanation. One of them was Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who said he regularly spoke with Conroy and had never heard any of his colleagues complain about him.

"I saw people walk up to him all the time, sit down with him. So I never heard any of these complaints before," King told reporters after the meeting. Ryan "just said he received so many complaints from members of the House about the lack of chaplain services. I never heard one of them. I’m not the Speaker, but I never heard [them]."

Some Democrats, up in arms over Conroy's removal, have voiced suspicions that Ryan had faced pressure from southern Republicans wary of Conroy's Catholicism, especially since the chaplain is a Catholic of the more liberal Jesuit order.

Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanBottom Line Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform MORE (R-Colo.) told reporters that Ryan said he received a number of “complaints” from members that their needs weren’t being met.

Suspicions among Catholic Democrats that Conroy's Catholicism played a role were bolstered Thursday night, when Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerOn The Money: House passes sweeping budget, debt limit deal | Dem court filing defends powers to get Trump's NY tax returns | Debt collectors to pay M to settle consumer bureau charges House passes sweeping budget, debt limit deal Romney to vote against budget deal: Agreement 'perpetuates fiscal recklessness' MORE (R-N.C.), a Southern Baptist Minister who heads the Republican Study Committee, promoted the notion that Conroy's replacement should have a family — a stipulation that would eliminate Catholic priests and nuns.

“I’m looking for somebody who has a little age, that has adult children, that kind of can connect with the bulk of the body here, Republicans and Democrats who are going through, back home the wife, the family," said Walker, who is heading the search committee charged with finding Conroy's replacement.

One GOP lawmaker said that there had been frustrations among some Republicans with Conroy. The lawmaker told The Hill that Conroy did not reach out to members of the GOP baseball team after last year’s shooting.

But Rep. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonGOP trading fancy offices, nice views for life in minority Privacy legislation could provide common ground for the newly divided Congress Texas New Members 2019 MORE (R-Texas), manager of the GOP baseball team, said that he and his sons had nothing but positive interactions with Conroy after the shooting, and pointed out that the chaplain led the prayer at first base before the congressional baseball game.

- Updated at 11:08 a.m.