Pope Francis got it right on Cardinal Barbarin


Catholic Register, 28 March 2019

Pope Francis did the right thing in refusing to accept the resignation offered by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons after his conviction by a French court of not properly handling a sexual abuse case by one of his priests. Barbarin is appealing and his appeal has a rather good chance of succeeding, as the prosecutor in the case argued against bringing Barbarin to trial in the first place, and all of Barbarin’s co-defendants were acquitted.

The Holy See has learned from last year’s fiasco in Australia, where Archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted of a cover-up in a decades-old case. Archbishop Wilson did not want to resign until his appeal was heard, but was subject to immense pressure to do so. When he did, the relief from the Vatican was palpable. But then the appellate court acquitted Wilson, ruling that his conviction was due in part to an anti-clerical frenzy. So in the Wilson case, a secular court has acquitted an archbishop, standing up to anti-Catholic bias, while the Holy See has, in effect, deposed him based on the same now overturned verdict. That was not going to happen again in regard to Lyons; Pope Francis will wait for the appeal to be heard.

The proper course in both cases is for the Church to note whatever evidence – or lack thereof – is established by criminal or civil proceedings, and then to judge the bishops by its own canonical procedures, revised by Pope Francis in 2016 in the legislation Come una madre amorevole. To date those procedures have apparently not been used; they should have been in both the Wilson and Barbarin cases.

That all being said, the person most disappointed by the Holy Father’s decision was probably Cardinal Barbarin himself. He clearly wanted out, and when his resignation was declined, he managed to get the Holy Father to permit a leave of absence. And therein lies a great difficulty in the discipline administered to bishops.

A bishop guilty of sexual abuse himself is subject to the same restrictions on ministry as any priest, including – as the McCarrick case demonstrated – dismissal from the clerical state altogether. Being forbidden to exercise public ministry, or any ministry at all, is no doubt a severe penalty for any priest who values his priesthood and believes his vocation to be a gift from God. His daily inability to exercise what flows from his identity is no small matter.

But for bishops guilty of poor oversight, negligence or deliberate cover-up, a just penalty is more difficult to establish. It is unlikely that he has committed a canonical crime, nor is he a danger to minors. The suitable penalty for one who has exercised his office badly is to deprive him of his office. And that is generally what is done, either by inviting a resignation, or by the Holy See removing the bishop from office.

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