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Francis: A Saint for Our Times
Sometimes a Statue is Just a Statue

Limits of Vos Estis Exposed

The ecclesial meltdown in Buffalo has highlighted the limits of the metropolitan model for policing the conduct of bishops as it relates to clergy sex abuse adopted by Pope Francis in May with his motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.

The metropolitan model leaves it to the metropolitan archbishop to commence an investigation of a bishop within his ecclesiastical province. Once he determines an investigation should be conducted, he contacts the relevant dicastery in the Vatican, in this case the Congregation for Bishops, and they must authorize him to proceed, or not, within 30 days. The metropolitan archbishop then has 90 days to complete his investigation. The scope of the investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis are limited to allegations of sexual abuse by a bishop or the covering up of abuse by others. 

Late last year, the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” dedicated a segment to the allegations that Bishop Richard Malone was covering up instances of clergy sex abuse. The charges were made by his former personal assistant Siobhan O’Connor. A case could be made that if Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the metropolitan for all of New York state, knew nothing but what he had seen on that television show, he would have been justified in asking Rome for authorization to conduct an investigation on June 1, the day Vos estis went into effect.

At last year’s plenary meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November, several bishops told me that Bishop Malone was denying all the allegations.

This summer, a parish priest, Father Jeffrey Nowak, was removed from ministry and asked to undergo an evaluation. Later, Bishop Malone’s priest secretary, Fr. Ryszard Biernat, was also taking a leave of absence. Both had been involved, perhaps romantically, with a seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski. In a recording of a meeting discussing the situation, Bishop Malone referred to the situation as a “love triangle.”

Charges and counter-charges flew. Ms. O’Connor defended Fr. Biernat. “Whatever is going on in there, I can tell you one thing: I have total trust in Father Ryszard’s selfless commitment to the priesthood, our diocese and Our Lord,” she said in a written statement. “Father Ryszard’s name is Polish for ‘Richard,’ which means that I worked closely with two Richards during my time in the Chancery. One of them I trust with my whole heart. The other is Bishop Malone.” Defenders of Fr. Nowak sent reporters pictures of Bojanowski with Biernat at the Dead Sea, both covered in mud and holding each other very, very closely.

In the same recording in which Malone referred to the love triangle, he was heard saying, “This could be the end for me as bishop….it could force me to resign.”  Ugh. His evident self-pity is Exhibit A for the argument that clericalism is the root of the problem of clergy sexual abuse and its cover up.

Why, then, was no action taken until early October when the Vatican embassy in Washington announced that New York Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn would be leading an apostolic visitation of the diocese of Buffalo. Such visitations have long been used to examine a variety of problems in a diocese or seminary or religious order. Unlike investigations conducted under the terms of Vos estis, Bishop DiMarzio is not restricted to examining allegations of sex abuse or its cover-up. He can assess such difficult-to-prove qualities as presbyteral morale. I suspect Rome has already made the decision to remove Malone, which is why they chose a visitation over a Vos estis investigation: It is beyond self-evident that Malone has lost the moral authority needed to effectively lead his diocese.

The unanswered question is why Cardinal Dolan did not initiate an investigation all summer? Or, did he request authorization and was denied? We do not know, which points to one of the major limits with Vos estis: There is little transparency in the process, certainly less than is accorded a priest who is accused of sex abuse under the terms of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children. On the other hand, Archbishop Bernie Hebda of Minneapolis-St.Paul made a public announcement that he was conducting an investigation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston. Rome or the nuncio should regularize the procedure for disclosing news of an investigation to the public.

In a couple of weeks, the bishops will be gathered in Baltimore for their plenary meeting. I doubt they will address these issues in open session but they must do so in executive session. If any metropolitan archbishop is himself negligent in pursing investigations, the whole metropolitan model will come into disrepute. No bishops’ reputation, not Malone’s and not Dolan’s, should be permitted to obstruct the bishops’ conference from urging public disclosure of all requests for authorization to conduct an investigation. If the bishops are to police each other, the least they can do is let the rest of us know how they are doing it.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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