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Vos estis: why is it being applied in Crookston but not in Buffalo?

Bishop Malone of Buffalo, centre, attends a general audience in Rome (CNS)

US Church authorities seem hesitant to test the new Vatican law

Interesting times got more interesting this week, when the Archdiocese of St Paul-Minneapolis confirmed to the Catholic News Agency that the Congregation for Bishops has authorised an investigation into the conduct of a sitting bishop, Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, under the procedures outlined in Pope Francis’s reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, which went into effect on June 1.

“I have been authorised by the Congregation for Bishops to commence an investigation into allegations that the Most Reverend Michael Hoeppner, the Bishop of Crookston, carried out acts or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil or canonical investigations of clerical sexual misconduct in the Diocese of Crookston,” Archbishop Hebda told CNA on Tuesday.

Archbishop Hebda did not elaborate on the scope of his investigation. Hoeppner, however, has faced allegations that he pressured Ron Vasek, a man then in training for the diaconate, to keep quiet about abuse he suffered, and even demanded Vasek sign a letter recanting his allegation. Vasek signed the letter in 2015. Hoeppner has denied the allegation.

Crookston diocese has also entered into a $5 million settlement agreement involving 15 separate lawsuits complaining of sexual abuse. The agreement requires that the diocese release transcripts of the depositions of Bishop Hoeppner and other diocesan officials. In July, CNA reported that insurance will cover the brunt of the settlement payouts, and that Crookston diocese believes it will be the only Minnesota diocese to avoid filing for bankruptcy.

During the preliminary phase of the investigation, Bishop Hoeppner will remain in office.

“This investigation is a preliminary one and not a full canonical process,” Hebda explained to CNA. “As such, a limited time period,” of 90 days under Vos estis, “has been established by the Holy See to gather information that may substantiate (or not) the truthfulness of the allegations.”

The preliminary report will then go to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States — the pope’s diplomatic representative, Archbishop Christophe Pierre — and to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome for evaluation and decision on whether to prosecute.

The inquest into Hoeppner’s conduct is the first investigation of a sitting bishop in the United States. It will rightly be viewed as a test case for the new law, which established the “Metropolitan system” for investigating bishops, so-called because it puts metropolitan archbishops in charge of conducting investigations into the conduct of their suffragans — the bishops subordinate to them in their ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The law, Vos estis lux mundi, has not been tested until now in a case involving a sitting US bishop. Nobody knows for sure how it works, or is supposed to work. In the Hoeppner case, the origin of the complaint and the identity of the complainant remain unconfirmed, but Archbishop Hebda’s statement to CNA suggests that the matter is being handled cautiously. One might even say that the principals are being very careful to do things by the book – but the point is that the book remains largely to be written.

If the imminent public release of depositions, or even a single complaint known to the public, has been enough to activate Vos estis in the ecclesiastical province of St Paul-Minneapolis, then the question is: why are documents, public witness statements, and multiple audio recordings of a sitting bishop discussing with senior staff what sounds to many to be a cover-up, not sufficient to activate Vos estis in the ecclesiastical province of New York, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the metropolitan and Bishop Richard Malone has been under microscopic public scrutiny for more than a year?

If Archbishop Hebda’s investigation is a trial run, the sorely tried faithful of western New York are not likely to have great patience with higher Church authority as they test the motor of their new reform tool. Meanwhile, to judge solely on the basis of the situation in New York, one may be forgiven for garnering the impression that everyone in a position to do anything is waiting for somebody else to do something. If it obtains, that state of affairs is untenable: it means that nobody will ever do anything. Something has to give, and soon.

Only the pope can remove a bishop — that goes for Hoeppner in Crookston and for Malone in Buffalo — but it is now up to metropolitans to get the ball rolling.

Writing in his “Distinctly Catholic” space at the National Catholic Reporter — remember that the Reporter has been doggedly pursuing the abuse crisis since the mid-1980s, and was largely responsible for keeping the story in the press before it became an unavoidable public scandal in 2002 — Michael Sean Winters noted on Wednesday that, whatever the political calculations and backroom machinations, “Vos estis puts the burden on the metropolitan, not the nuncio, to start an investigation.” Neither Cardinal Dolan nor any other metropolitan can wait and hide behind Vatican apparatchiks who would prefer to proceed with piedi di piombo.

“The bishops have to realise, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin in an entirely different context, they must all hang together or they most assuredly will hang separately,” Winters wrote. “Put differently, you do not need two skunks to stink up a room, only one, and unless the metropolitan archbishops are seen to be prompt and just in exercising their responsibilities, the credibility of the entire hierarchy will be further eroded — and there is not much left to erode.”

Surveying the ravaged landscape of the Church in the United States and around the world, one may rather surmise that the bishops’ store of credibility is already exhausted, and that their efforts at this point can do no more than service the debt they have incurred in that regard, over decades in which they were wantonly trifling when they were not actively seeking to keep themselves out of the papers and police blotters.

If, on the other hand, the powers in the Vatican believe they can throw the book at Hoeppner, declare victory and go home, they are in for a very rude awakening. Ask anyone in Buffalo.