VATICAN CITY – The Vatican’s recent contrasting handling of two bishops has highlighted concerns over discrepancies in bishops’ discipline, with no explanation available why one of the two bishops was removed from office while the other was allowed to remain in office.
Both cases involve Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, whom Francis relieved of his episcopal duties in March, and Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, who has not been sanctioned despite a series of allegations, including the mishandling of a case of sexual misconduct by a diocesan seminarian.
“The treatment of such cases seemed to me quite arbitrary,” a cardinal told the Register on condition of anonymity, adding that this approach raises “serious and justifiable questions.”
The Vatican has not given a reason for firing Bishop Fernández, 57, who in a March 9 statement protested the decision, calling it “totally unjust.”
“No trial was made against me, nor formally charged with anything and simply one day the apostolic delegate [the pope’s representative in Puerto Rico] communicated to me verbally that Rome was asking me to resign,” Bishop Fernández said. “A successor to the apostles is now being replaced without even undertaking what would be a proper canonical process to remove a parish priest.”
The bishop added that he had been asked to resign because he would “have not been obedient to the pope and that I had not been in sufficient communion with my brother bishops of Puerto Rico”.
Some of his supporters protested this decision in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Juan and launched a petition demanding his reinstatement.
A document, prepared by legal advisers to Bishop Fernández and obtained by ACI Prensa on June 13, detailed the history of grievances between the now dismissed bishop and the head of the Episcopal Conference of Puerto Rico, Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves de San Juan.
Their longstanding disagreements, mostly revolving around Archbishop González’s passionate belief in Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States – a position opposed by Bishop Fernández as well as historically by the Vatican — came to a head when the two clashed over the correct approach to COVID-19 vaccinations, with Bishop Fernández breaking ranks with his fellow bishops in support of the right to conscientious objection.
But sources told the Register that the vaccination issue was just a pretext to fire Bishop Fernández. A more central factor in his departure, they said, is the strong relationships Archbishop González has with influential prelates close to Pope Francis. His close friendship with Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is said to have played a key role in many of the Holy Father’s episcopal appointments, is particularly significant.
Archbishop González’s personal story is also relevant to concerns about Vatican inconsistency. In 2012, while Benedict XVI was still in office, the archbishop refused to obey numerous requests from the Vatican to resign, despite the insistence of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. According to the archbishop himself, the Vatican accused him at the time not only of promoting Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States, but also of other serious offenses, including the protection of priests pedophiles and support for hereditary rights and health benefits for same-sex couples.
However, after the election of Pope Francis in 2013, Archbishop González was allowed to remain Archbishop of San Juan.
Unlike the harsh disciplinary action taken against Bishop Fernández, the case of Bishop Stika has not prompted a similar intervention from the Vatican, even though it involves a series of serious allegations.
The Pillar extensively reported on allegations regarding Bishop Stika’s handling of the case of a seminarian who was fired from St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana in March 2021, after three fellow seminarians accused him of misconduct. sexual. After the dismissal, Bishop Stika told the Pillar that the seminarian’s dismissal was unjustified and the diocese continued to list him as a diocesan seminarian. Bishop Stika also reportedly took the seminarian on vacation for 10 days after his dismissal and then personally intervened in the investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations to replace the investigator originally appointed by a diocesan review board.
After the Congregation for Bishops received approximately 10 complaints about the bishop’s leadership, which included concerns about his relationship with the seminarian as well as questions about the bishop’s reported erratic behavior and alleged fiscal recklessness, the Vatican commissioned an investigation by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville. . Archbishop Kurtz reportedly submitted the results of his investigation to the Congregation for Bishops some time ago, but so far Bishop Stika, who has played down many complaints, remains in office and no action has been taken. was taken.
Other contrasting cases have been seen elsewhere recently, particularly in Germany, where Pope Francis ordered Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, an outspoken prelate opposed to the country’s controversial synodal path, to take a seven-month sabbatical l last year despite being cleared of any wrongdoing. case of abuse. Such action was not applied in the same way to his episcopal colleagues in Germany; Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Bishop Stephen Ackermann of Trier both offered to resign following investigations into mishandling of abuse, but the resignations were not accepted, discipline like that applied to the cardinal Woelki was not company.
Pope Francis blamed “a lot of pressure groups” and long-running internal conflicts for the situations in Cologne and Puerto Rico. “There are a lot of dioceses like that,” he said in a June 14 interview with the Jesuit newspaper. La Civilta Cattolica.
Lack of clarity
The Register contacted Cardinal Ouellet and the Holy See press office several times to see if they could provide clarification on this matter, but they did not respond.
The Register also asked several cardinals, bishops, priests and canonists what they thought of these discrepancies and why they thought they were occurring. Few of them wished to be named by name, but all recognized that an important problem needed to be solved.
“My impression is that these cases are not handled according to a standard process,” said one of these prelates. “I’m afraid the decisions will very much depend on who the accused bishop’s friends are and how much of the pope’s ear they have. Since everything is done in the utmost secrecy, there is no way to demonstrate the service of justice.
A US bishop told the Register, on condition of anonymity, that it is “difficult to assess whether we are really dealing with ‘injustices’ given that so little information is made public,” and things are also complicated by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Bishops both dealing with these cases and having different norms.
He said that, like most bishops, he was “looking forward to seeing what happens” with Your Estis Lux Mundi (You are the light of the world), François’ 2019 motu owner aimed at ensuring that bishops and religious superiors are held accountable for their handling of cases of abuse. The document has been in effect for a three-year trial period that ends this summer.
Michael Dunnigan, a canon lawyer from Indiana, said that although motu owner was “a welcome development”, the threat of “the arbitrary exercise of ecclesiastical power has long been a problem, and one remains”. He said this despite safeguards put in place in the 1967 Synod of Bishops and the 1983 Code of Canon Law to prevent such problems.
Dunnigan told the Register that Bishop Fernández’s case was “puzzling indeed,” and that it is not just the right to due process that is at stake, but also that the faithful’s right “to information” – a right that “applies in the Church“. , as well as in civil society. Referring to the Decree of the Second Vatican Council on Social Communications Intermirifica (Among the Wonderful) and his 1971 application file Communio and progressio (Unity and Advancement), he said that “the Holy See should inform the faithful – especially those in Puerto Rico – of the specific reasons for the removal of Bishop Fernández.”
Marc Balestrieri, founder and president of Canonical Aid, a legal advisory and canon law advocacy service, agreed with Dunnigan that the Code of Canon Law ensures that dismissals and discipline of “holders of ecclesiastical office are carried out fairly,” but he noted that as far as bishops are concerned, “the norms governing the system have in recent years become more opaque”. He pointed out that Canon 416 governing the vacancy of episcopal sees does not explicitly list removal as a cause of vacancy and that even in the new apostolic constitution of the Roman Curia, Evangelium Predicate, word “revocation” is not mentioned in relation to bishops.
Bishops subject to direct impeachment by the Pope have no right of “appeal” because, according to Canon 1404, “the First See is judged by no one”. However, Balestrieri stressed that the bishop and the lay faithful have the right to present new information and evidence that could cause the pope to reconsider his decision “for the common good of the Church”, if not simple justice if the decision to “relieve” a bishop was based on incomplete or erroneous reports.
Some canonists believe that a solution to the problem might be to address these issues more publicly, and with increased use of canonical trials which can sometimes be more effective in resolving these issues.
Balestrieri, who said he has legally defended a bishop, believes that recent events demonstrate that the norms governing the “relief” and “dismissal” of bishops must be improved and clarified by the Holy See, and that the press office of the Holy See needs to be more specific when using these terms.
For example, press releases were issued regarding the same bishop, who in one language used the non-canonical term “relieved”, but in other languages he was “retired”. “Dismissal” is a penalty in canon law, while “relieved” is not necessarily penal in nature.
According to Balestrieri, “In the absence of greater clarity given by the Holy See regarding the canonical rights of diocesan bishops, and of more precise and uniform press releases issued in all languages, the risk that diocesan bishops and lay worshipers interpreting a bishop’s ‘relief’ as being against the law will only increase.