VATICAN CITY — The contrasting recent handling by the Vatican of two bishops has highlighted concerns about discrepancies in the disciplining of bishops, with no explanation available why one of the two bishop was dismissed while the other has been allowed to remain in office.
The two cases involve Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, whom Francis relieved from his episcopal duties in March, and Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, who has not been sanctioned despite an array of allegations including the mishandling of a case of sexual misconduct by a diocesan seminarian.
“The treatment of such cases has seemed quite arbitrary to me,” one cardinal told the Register on condition of anonymity, adding that this approach raises “serious and justifiable questions.”
“No process has been made against me, nor have I been formally accused of anything and simply one day the apostolic delegate [the pope’s representative in Puerto Rico] verbally communicated to me that Rome was asking me to resign,” Bishop Fernández said. “A successor of the apostles is now being replaced without even undertaking what would be a due canonical process to remove a parish priest.”
The bishop added he had been asked to resign because he allegedly “had not been obedient to the Pope nor had I been in sufficient communion with my brother bishops of Puerto Rico.”
Some of his supporters protested against the decision outside the metropolitan cathedral of San Juan and launched a petition calling for his reinstatement.
A document, prepared by legal advisers to Bishop Fernández and obtained by ACI Prensa on June 13, detailed a history of grievances between the now-dismissed bishop and the head of Puerto Rico’s episcopal conference, Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves of San Juan.
Their long-running disagreements, principally 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 brother bishops to support a right to conscientious objection.
But sources told the Register the vaccination issue was merely a pretext for dismissing Bishop Fernández. A more central factor in his departure, they said, are the strong relationships Archbishop González maintains with influential prelates close to Pope Francis. Particularly significant is his close friendship with Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who reportedly takes a key role in many of the Holy Father’s episcopal appointments.
The personal history of Archbishop González is also relevant to concerns of Vatican inconsistency. In 2012, when Benedict XVI was still in office, the archbishop refused to obey numerous Vatican requests that he resign, despite the urging of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. According to the archbishop himself, the Vatican was accusing him at the time not only of promoting Puerto Rican independence from the U.S., but also other serious offenses, including protecting pedophile priests and supporting hereditary rights and health benefits for same-sex couples.
After Pope Francis was elected in 2013, however, Archbishop González was allowed to remain archbishop of San Juan.
In contrast to the severe disciplinary action undertaken against Bishop Fernández, Bishop Stika’s case has not prompted a similar Vatican intervention, even though it involves a range of serious allegations.
The Pillar has reported extensively about allegations involving Bishop Stika’s handling of the case of a seminarian who was dismissed from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana in March 2021, after three fellow seminarians accused him of sexual misconduct. After the dismissal, Bishop Stika told The Pillar that the seminarian’s dismissal was unwarranted, and the diocese continued to list him as a diocesan seminarian. Bishop Stika also reportedly took the seminarian on a 10-day vacation after his dismissal, and subsequently intervened personally in the investigation of the sexual misconduct allegations in order to replace the investigator initially 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 relating to the bishop’s reported erratic behavior and alleged fiscal imprudence, 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 of the complaints, remains in position and no action has been taken.
Other contrasting cases have been seen elsewhere recently, particularly in Germany, where Pope Francis ordered Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, a prelate who has publicly opposed to the country’s controversial Synodal Path, to take a seven-month sabbatical last year despite being cleared of wrongdoing in handling abuse cases. Such action has not been similarly applied to his episcopal colleagues in Germany; Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Bishop Stephen Ackermann of Trier both offered to resign as a result of investigations of the mishandling of abuse, but the resignations were not accepted and discipline, such as that applied to Cardinal Woelki, was not undertaken.
Pope Francis has blamed “a lot of pressure groups” and longstanding internal conflicts for the situations in Cologne and Puerto Rico. “There are many dioceses like that,” he said in a June 14 interview with the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.
Lack of Clarity
The Register contacted Cardinal Ouellet and the Holy See Press Office several times to see if they could offer clarity on this issue, but they did not respond.
The Register also asked several cardinals, bishops, priests and canonists what they thought of such discrepancies and why they thought they were happening. Few wished to be quoted by name but all of them acknowledged a significant problem needs to be addressed.
“My impression is that these matters are not handled according to a standard process,” one of these prelates said. “I fear that decisions depend very much upon who are the friends of the accused bishop and how much they have the ear of the Pope. Since everything is done with the maximum secrecy, there is no way to demonstrate the service of justice.”
One U.S. 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 matters 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 standards.
He said that like most bishops, he was “anxious to see what happens” with Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), Francis’ 2019 motu proprio aimed at ensuring bishops and religious superiors are held accountable for their dealing with abuse cases. The document has been in force for a three-year experimental period that completes this summer.
Michael Dunnigan, a canon lawyer in Indiana, said that although the motu proprio has been “a welcome development,” the threat of the “arbitrary exercise of ecclesiastical power has long been a problem, and it remains one.” He said this is despite safeguards put in place in the 1967 Synod of Bishops and the 1983 Code of Canon Law to prevent such abuses.
Dunnigan told the Register the Bishop Fernández case was “indeed puzzling,” and that it is not only the right to due process that is at stake but also that the right of the faithful “to information” — a right that “applies in the Church, as well as in civil society.” Referring to the Second Vatican Council decree on social communications Inter Mirifica (Among the Wonderful) and its 1971 application document Communio et Progressio (Unity and Advancement), he said “the Holy See should inform the faithful — especially those of Puerto Rico — of the specific reasons for the removal of Bishop Fernández.”
Marc Balestrieri, a canon lawyer and president of Canonical Aid, a service providing legal counsel and advocacy in canon law, agreed with Dunnigan that the Code of Canon Law ensures that dismissals and disciplining of “ecclesiastical office-holders be carried out equitably” but he noted that when it comes to bishops, “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 for vacancy and that even in the new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, the word “removal” is not mentioned in relation to bishops.
Bishops subject to direct removal by the Pope do not have a right of “appeal” as, according to Canon 1404, “the First See is judged by no one.” However, Balestrieri stressed that the bishop and lay faithful do have a right to present new information and proof that could impel the pope to reverse 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 a solution to the problem could be to have these issues addressed more publicly, and with an increased use of canonical trials which sometimes can more effective in resolving such matters.
Balestrieri, who has canonically defended a bishop, believes recent events demonstrate the norms governing the “relieving” and “removal” of bishops need to be improved and clarified by the Holy See, and that the Holy See Press Office needs to be more precise when using these terms.
For example, press releases have been issued regarding the same bishop, which in one language used the non-canonical term, “relieved,” but in other languages state he was “removed.” “Removal” is a penalty in canon law, whereas “relieved” is not necessarily penal in nature.
Said Balestrieri, “In the absence of greater clarity being given by the Holy See regarding the canonical rights of diocesan bishops, and more precise and uniform press releases being issued in all languages, the risk of diocesan bishops and lay faithful interpreting the ‘relieving’ of a Bishop as being done against the law will only increase.”
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