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Does Vos estis need a tune-up?

In seeking to build a culture of accountability and transparency, we must take the approach that our practices and structures are semper reformanda, because we ourselves are always in need of reform.

null / Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Recently the National Catholic Reporter published an article by Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose. Bishop Cantu discussed how his initial misgivings about synodality were assuaged by a Latin American ecclesial assembly he had attended a few months ago. While it was beneficial to see a bishop sharing his own thoughts and feelings on an important issue in the Church today, it was somewhat awkward to see this from Bishop Cantu.

In 2020 the Catholic News Agency confirmed Bishop Cantu was the subject of an investigation regarding “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious” in cases of sexual abuse” under the auspices of Vos estis lux mundi. To date, no resolution has been reported in his case.

The National Catholic Reporter also made no note of this in publishing the article. In charity, one might suspect they did not know. After all, other than the initial CNA piece over a year ago, little to no information is available about the case. How easy it would be to have seen this information and then forgotten it.

Is it not strange for Bishop Cantu to be invited to an official Church event as an official representative when he is presently under investigation for covering up abuse or interfering in an investigation? (The initial report does not make clear what exactly it is he is accused of.) Imagine if a priest who had been accused of abuse or cover-up was publishing newspaper articles on issues of the day, or making public appearances as an official representative of his diocese. Would this priest seem credible? Would the Church seem credible for letting him? Would this communicate that the Church was taking the abuse crisis seriously?

There have been other situations like this over the last few years. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn publicly challenged unjust and disproportionate restrictions against churches during the early days of the pandemic, all while being the subject of a Vos estis investigation himself. While the bishop may have been fighting a good fight, it didn’t help his cause with the general public that news reports about his court case also needed to mention the fact he was accused of sexual abuse.

Many have pointed out the discrepancy between the handling of cases of priests who are accused of abuse or covering up abuse and bishops who are accused of the same. Under the Dallas Charter, priests facing a credible accusation are suspended from ministry, forced to leave their parish rectories, and generally ordered to keep a low profile until the investigation is concluded. Bishops face none of those restrictions.

Now, certain ecclesiological realities could make it difficult to treat bishops and priests in the same way. It is within a bishop’s jurisdiction to suspend a priest; can the pope suspend bishops in the same way? While the pope indeed has full, supreme, and universal jurisdiction, the relationship between bishops and the pope is not analogous to that between bishops and priests. Bishops are not branch managers of Rome Corp., but true heads of churches in their own right. They have certain rights under canon law. Still, the pope is the promulgator of canon law. Adjustments can be made, can they not?

Vos estis was issued ad experimentum for three years. As the decree undergoes review and renewal, for what they’re worth, here are a few suggestions from a layman. Think of these as conversation starters.

  1. Bishops who are under investigation should be suspended. They should not celebrate liturgy publicly, and major decisions regarding the diocese should be placed on hold. An apostolic administrator should be named. Yes, there is a presumption of innocence, and we should not punish those under investigation as if they have already been found guilty–but neither should we pretend nothing is going on. Police, teachers, and others under investigation for misbehavior on the job are suspended during investigations–as are priests, under the Dallas Charter. Why could not bishops be as well?

  2. Investigations should be announced publicly. They should not be conducted in secret, only publicly known when someone leaks the fact to reporters. Certain details of the case can be kept confidential–no need to expose victims or create a “trial by media.” But the mere fact of an investigation should not be hidden.

  3. Regular updates should be given as to the status of the case. Make an announcement when the initial investigation has wrapped up, when it’s been sent to Rome. If there are delays, explain why.

  4. If a case is found to be unsubstantiated, as much as possible, explain why. This is necessary for a decision to be accepted as credible. One of the weak links in the Vos estis framework is that, with bishops investigating bishops, there is the possibility of friends protecting each other. (Cardinal Dolan’s comments in the midst of the DiMarzio investigation that “he’s a great guy” did not instill confidence in the impartiality of the conclusion.)

  5. Perhaps most importantly: if a bishop is found to be guilty of abuse, cover up, or negligence, he should not be allowed to resign. He should be removed from office. I realize this might mean a lengthier process, a canonical trial. But the demands of justice should take precedence over a desire to decrease paperwork.

I have no doubt there may be canonical or theological snags, hiccups, or complications with these suggestions. But as we seek to build a culture of accountability and transparency, especially regarding issues surrounding abuse, we must take the approach that our our practices and structures are semper reformanda, because we ourselves are always in need of reform. Justice demands it.


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About Nicholas Senz 24 Articles
Nicholas Senz is is Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children. Visit him online at www.nicholassenz.com.

6 Comments

  1. Excellent suggestions.

    Steps like these ought to be considered — at a minimum — in an effort to restore the credibility of the Church.

    Christ deserves *so* much better than us.

    (Hides face in hands.)

  2. Yes, it’s obvious as reported by Senz. His guidelines for improvement [although suspending someone with wide responsibility as a bishop on an unproven allegation is questionable] however require universal application within our Church.
    Chad Pecknold last night interviewed by Raymond Arroyo made his point resoundingly clear. Our Church, the Mystical Body of Christ is by increased indication being systematically corrupted from within driven by a misplaced anthropocentric theology regarding human sexuality, in specific, homosexual acts. PhD Pecknold lectures at the Catholic U of America. That institution is blessed to have him. He perceives correctly the digression toward immorality stemming from Amoris Laetitia and the mitigation of adultery, irregular unions.
    A new Vatican approach to homosexual relations became apparent during this pontificate with the famous “Who am I to judge?” and Pope Francis’ appointment to key Vatican positions of either practicing or accommodating clerics. Appointment of Fr James Martin SJ to Vat communications a significant signal.
    Presently, the issue discussed here of mediating the integration of German Synodal Way into the Global Synod on synodality by progressive Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ [a strong advocate for normalizing homosexuality] the papal appointed relator general, is sadly, no surprise. A measure of perspicacity would have foreseen the Amazonia-Germany-Global Synodal on synodality doctrinal evolution.
    If we were to be boldly attentive [priests are sentinels] rather than viewed as melodramatic a redline is being drawn, apparently permitted by Our lord separating poor misled souls many already predisposed toward heresy and ruin – from those who must fight the good fight for their salvation.

  3. This is a most ‘enlightening’ approach as the current system of managing allegations of sexual abuse by bishops does nothing but darken the already very dark approach.

    I refer to an article in CWR of August 29th 2021 titled ‘The strange case of Bishop Saunders leaves many questions unanswered’

    Saunders was allowed to ‘retire’, on pension, in church accommodation in the epicentre of the location of his alleged abuses

  4. “Is it not strange for Bishop Cantu to be invited to an official Church event as an official representative when he is presently under investigation for covering up abuse or interfering in an investigation?”

    Yes, on the surface, it does seem so. However, I wonder if the author has any evidence that would go against this Bishop, he should have made it known. Not long ago, we had a Cardinal in Australia who had been under investigation for many years. For not just covering up child abuse but for committing the offence. Pope Francis left him in charge of his Office ion the Vatican till the matter went to court. He was initially found guilty by the media and the lower courts but, as we know, Cardinal Pell was eventually found to be innocent of those charges.
    A few years earlier, a well-respected Archbishop in Adelaide (Australia) was charged and found guilty of an offence. What offence? Of covering up child abuse. However, he appealed and then he, too, was found to be not guilty. This Archbishop was touted to become an influential Church leader in Australia but, with the help of an unhelpful media, a good person was lost to us.
    I believe that the Church should not behave sa a secular entity but rather like Jesus. He forgave an adulteress, He welcomed a tax collector into his family, he satwith a Samaritan woman who had been married several times which, apparently according to her religion was not sinful, he brought a murderer -Saul – into his Church and said emphatically that he had not come to judge but to save.
    If we had been a secular group I would have agreed with your suggestions. But since we belong to our Lord’s family, we need to tread differently.

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