Issues facing new pontiff: III – Sexual abuse, bishops’ resignation and transparency

Earlier posts on the issues facing Pope Francis have considered the Vatileaks report and Reform of the Curia, and whilst these have contained elements of canon law, they are essentially organizational issues.  In contrast, this and a subsequent post will consider issues more closely linked to canon law: the resignation of bishops and the wording of Canon 401 §2; and the adequacy of Canon 332 §2 in relation to the resignation of a pope, respectively.

With regard to the former, the Vatican announcement Francis: Act Decisively against sexual abuse stated:

“This morning the Holy Father received in audience Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A communique released by that dicastery reads that, during the course of the audience, various issues pertaining to the Congregation were discussed.

In particular, the Holy Father recommended that the Congregation, continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops’ conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church’s witness and credibility.

The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering.”

It is reported that throughout his pontificate, Benedict XVI had been quietly demanding the resignations of many bishops, and had removed two or three bishops per month throughout the world “because either the accounts in their dioceses were a mess or their discipline was a disaster”.  In June 2012, the Italian journal L’Espresso examined those the bishops who had apparently been ushered out of active ministry, although this included only a dozen or so under Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

Clearly, Canon Can. 401 §2 is applicable in cases where a bishop is persuaded to resign from office, but given nature of the terse announcements by the Vatican, it is uncertain whether this was on account of ill-health or other reasons. Where persuasion is not effective, more formal action may be taken, but the reporting of this action does not necessarily identify the underlying reason.

The methods by which a see may become vacant are defined in Canon 416

Can. 401 §1. A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.

§2. A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill-health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.

Canon 411 extends these provisions to coadjutor and auxiliary bishops.

It has been suggested here, here and elsewhere that a separation should be made between the two causes for early resignation in Canon 401 § 2 (and further classifying “other grave reason” as personal or doctrinal reasons), “as a matter of justice, so that those who do resign for health reasons are not tainted by association with those who resign for other reasons.” Given the number of diocesan bishops worldwide, it is inevitable that a proportion of these will need to resign on grounds of health, particularly in view of the current retirement age of 75.  Equally, it is not inconceivable that in the wake of the Pontiff’s recent statement and possibly the fall-out from Vatileaks report, there will also be a number who are persuaded to resign for “other grave reasons”.

Clearly, Canon Can. 401 §2 is applicable in cases where a bishop is persuaded to resign from office, and given nature of the terse announcement by the Vatican, it is uncertain whether this was on account of ill-health or other reasons. Where persuasion is not effective, more formal action may be taken, but the reporting of this action does not necessarily identify the underlying reason.

The methods by which a See may become vacant are further defined in Canon 416

Can. 416 An episcopal see is vacant upon the death of a diocesan bishop, resignation accepted by the Roman Pontiff, transfer, or privation made known to the bishop.

Again the language used in official announcements is sometimes problematic and Peters notes

“while ‘removal’ is a general way to lose ecclesiastical office (Canons 184, 192-195) not necessarily implying canonically criminal conduct, ‘removal’ from episcopal office does not, strictly speaking, seem possible under Canon 416, only privation (Canon. 196) seems possible, and such action implies guilt for ecclesiastical crimes.

Furthermore,

“only the pope hears criminal cases involving bishops (Canon 1405 §1) and penal cases are generally conducted confidentially (Canon 1455 §1), so unless either side decides to discuss the matter, the details are not likely to emerge (with good reliability, at least)”.

Comment

In terms of safeguarding, the bishop plays a pivotal role in the areas identified in Pope Francis’ latest statement and there is a narrow line between transparency and the protection of the vulnerable parties.  To date there has been relatively little comment from Catholic sources on the Pope’s announcement on Friday other than verbatim reports, whilst groups representing those who have been abused have been more vocal, demanding actions rather than words.

A potential problem is the use of the term “continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI” in the Pres Release which, for those who were aware of action that was being taken, might seem a logical continuation/justification of the Church’s policy in this area.  For others, however, in view of the lack of transparency in these issues, some of which may be attributed to the need to protect the victim and which relates to the provisions within the canon law, the statement may seem far less positive.

As Dame Catherine Wybourne notes

“ where this subject is concerned, enough is never enough: there is always something more one could or should do because of the enormity of abuse; and no one could say that the Vatican has handled the situation well. In PR terms, it has been an unmitigated disaster.”

It is clearly too early judge the direction that the required “positive action” will take, but given Pope Francis’ early action in other areas, the prospects appear encouraging.

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