Diocese Acts after New Grasp of Canon Law
Petition Suspends Vatican Verdict on Cipolla
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
March 25, 1993
Saying diocesan officials finally have a clear understanding of canon law, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh says Bishop Donald W. Wuerl will not restore the priestly powers of the Rev. Anthony Cipolla.
The Vatican's highest court had ordered the reinstatement of Cipolla, a priest accused of child molestation.
But during a Monday visit to the Vatican's representative in Washington, D.C., Wuerl formally petitioned the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura to reopen Cipolla's case. And because the Signatura has now received that petition, its earlier verdict is automatically suspended, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.
Lengwin's statement corrects a Sunday statement — itself a correction of a prior statement — that the Signatura verdict could not be suspended until that body agreed to rehear the case.
"Canon law is not always something easy to interpret," Lengwin said of new diocesan understanding. Diocesan canon lawyers consulted experts outside the diocese to reach the latest interpretation, he said.
Lengwin said Cipolla "can't represent himself as a priest in good standing, he is not allowed to wear a Roman collar, not to celebrate the sacraments publicly."
Lengwin said the diocese asked the Signatura to act on the case "as quickly as possible" and said Wuerl was confident the panel would quickly agree to a rehearing.
Cipolla, 49, was removed as chaplain of a home for handicapped children in November 1988 after a young man — not a resident of the home — filed a civil suit charging that Cipolla had molested him throughout his teen-age years. Later, after Cipolla refused Wuerl's order to enter a psychiatric hospital near Philadelphia, Wuerl withdrew Cipolla's faculties, meaning he could not even do free-lance ministry independent of the diocese, according to Vatican Court records.
Cipolla is best known for his independent work on behalf of Padre Pio, an Italian mystic and healer who died in 1968. Local Padre Pio devotees have proclaimed Cipolla's innocence to both Wuerl and the Vatican.
Cipolla appealed Wuerl's decisions to the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, which sided with Wuerl. Cipolla then appealed to the Signatura, which on March 9 ordered Wuerl to reinstate Cipolla.
Wuerl immediately called for a rehearing, saying that the Signatura's decision was based on "factual inaccuracies."
Cipolla's civil trial is scheduled for May in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
Cipolla's advocates were furious that Wuerl said Cipolla remained without his priestly faculties.
Lengwin "has no authority to make such a statement. I don't see how he has the nerve to speak for the Supreme Court of the church," said Charles Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation of San Antonio, Texas, a canon law group that supports Cipolla.
"If he has a decree of the Signatura suspending the effects of this decision, let him produce it."
According to Lengwin, Wuerl met Monday with the pope's representative to the U.S., Apostolic Pro-Nuncio Agostino Cacciavillan. Cacciavillan gave Wuerl the official copy of the Signatura's verdict and Wuerl gave Cacciavillan his formal petition for a rehearing, Lengwin said.
Wuerl had maintained he could not carry out the order restoring Cipolla to ministry until he had the copy in hand. But, because Rome now has the petition for a rehearing, Cipolla's faculties remain suspended, Lengwin said.
The diocese has asked to be represented by a canon lawyer at any rehearing, Lengwin said.
That request is significant because, due to Vatican legal procedure, no one officially represented the diocese before the Signatura at the first hearing.
The Signatura took a year to decide to accept the case originally, and that was quick by Vatican standards, said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy of the Catholic University of America, a professor of canon law who interpreted the Latin decision for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I think he is submitting new evidence. That is what makes it legally feasible" to reopen the case, Orsy said.
From the documents obtained by the Post-Gazette, there is no way to tell exactly what evidence the Congregation for the Clergy submitted to the Signatura, Orsy said.
The most conspicuous fact missing from the Signatura's seven-page verdict is any reference to the civil suit pending against Cipolla. The verdict mentions that the Beaver County district attorney did not file criminal charges against Cipolla but says nothing of any civil case, Orsy said.
Although there is no way to know for sure, it is possible that the judges were unaware of the civil suit, he said.
"In the European legal system ... if there are no criminal charges, you can have no civil suit. Perhaps it did not occur to them that there was a civil suit. They may not have thought to ask," Orsy said.
But Cipolla's canon lawyer, Count Neri Capponi of Florence, Italy, said that "all of the evidence that the bishop sent to the Congregation for the Clergy to support his case was then put at the disposal of the Signatura."
Capponi, one of the few attorneys accredited to argue before the Signatura, said he would be very surprised if Wuerl obtained a new hearing.
"It would have to be a completely different case, not based on the things that have been said before. I can't envision this," Capponi said.
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