Does Vos estis need a tune-up?

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

February 11, 2022

By Nicholas Senz

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.

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.