Conflicting claims have emerged over the way an investigation into a former auxiliary bishop in the US Archdiocese of Cincinnati was handled, casting further doubt over Church leaders’ commitment to the “responsibility, accountability, and transparency” supposed to be the watchwords of ecclesiastical efforts to combat abuse and coverup in the Francis era.
Pope Francis accepted Bishop Joseph Binzer’s resignation on Thursday, more than nine months after an investigation was opened into claims Binzer negligently handled allegations against a Cincinnati priest, of inappropriate behaviour with teenaged boys.
There are, in short, at least two different versions of how Church authorities handled the investigation. One version is from the Archbishop of Cincinnati, the other is from Rome. The two stories do not match.
The question the apparent discrepancy raises, is whether the Vatican used Pope Francis’s signature reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, designed to combat clerical abuse and especially abuse coverup, in order to investigate Bishop Binzer, on whose case the law seems tailor-made for use. For that reason, alone, question speaks directly to responsibility and accountability in hierarchical leadership culture.
The question also speaks to transparency.
Either Rome used Vos estis in this case, or Rome did not use Vos estis in this case: whether, and if so, how Rome used Vos estis are things the faithful have a right to know. Even if the faithful did not have a right to know whether and how the paper reforms undertaken for the better governance of the Church are actually being put to use, Church leaders starting with Pope Francis have pledged themselves to forthright openness in these regards.
The statement from the Holy See’s press office announcing that Pope Francis had accepted Bishop Binzer’s resignation said nothing about what led to its being offered. The statement did not mention any investigation.
A Vatican source, however, told the Catholic Herald the investigation was conducted within the framework of Pope Francis’s sweeping 2019 reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, which streamlined ecclesiastical investigative procedures into clerical abuse and – on paper, at least – removed obstacles to investigations into abuse coverup.
Crux also reported the claim, citing its own source in the Vatican.
On Thursday morning in Cincinnati, however, archdiocesan spokesperson Mike Schafer told the Son Rise Morning Show, “[The Vatican] concluded that the motu proprio,” ie Vos estis lux mundi, “did not apply in this case.”
“There are,” Schafer went on to say in the interview, “a number of factors you’d look at to investigate under the motu proprio, one of which is – and the only one that could have possibly applied, but it didn’t at all – is intentionally interfering with a civil or a court investigation into allegations of sexual abuse committed by another cleric or religious.”
Schafer later clarified for the Catholic Herald that he misspoke when he said, “court,” and intended to say “Church” – but there were other problems with the assertion. Vos estis requires any cleric or religious promptly to report any allegation or founded suspicion of abuse to the responsible Ordinary in the place where the abuse is alleged or suspected to have occurred.
In Fr Drew’s case, the Ordinary was Archbishop Schnurr, but Bishop Binzer apparently never told the Archbishop.
Through an archdiocesan spokesperson, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr told the Catholic Herald he had heard that Vos estis “did not apply to this matter” of Bishop Binzer. Schnurr said he received the assurance when he met with the Congregation for Bishops during his ad limina visit in December 2019.
Archbishop Schnurr did not identify the official from whom he heard that assurance. The Catholic Herald’s attempts directly to reach the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful. An overture sent to Ouellet’s personal secretary via email on Saturday met with no reply at the weekend.
It is unclear where Schafer took his understanding of the scope of Vos estis, but the assertion raises a question of legal interpretation.
In Article 3§1, Vos estis plainly states that, whenever a cleric – any cleric – has notice of, or well-founded motives to believe that a crime of abuse has taken place, he is obliged promptly to report the fact to the local Ordinary. All parties agree that Bishop Binzer did not report Fr Drew to his Ordinary, ie Archbishop Schnurr.
Questions of fact and law
Vos estis lux mundi went into effect on 1 June 2019.
The law did not exist when Bishop Binzer failed to report to his superior. Other norms, however, were on the books, including particular law pursuant to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the US bishops enacted in 2002. The Charter received revisions in 2005, 2011, and 2018. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, a Decree on Child Protection – originally styled Decree on Child Abuse – has been in force in one form or another since 1993, and underwent revisions in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and most recently in 2018.
Vos estis lux mundi provides a procedural framework for the investigation of conduct – whether by an abuser or a person with oversight responsibility – whenever it occurred.
The legal question for Church investigators, therefore, was whether Bishop Binzer committed a crime under ecclesiastical law in failing to report facts to his ecclesiastical superior. On paper, at least, Vos estis appears designed to help investigate and answer such questions. A Vatican source says the investigation into Bishop Binzer was conducted under the Vos estis framework. Archbishop Schnurr says he heard from the Congregation for Bishops that Vos estis does not apply to Binzer’s case.
There is, in short, an apparent discrepancy.
The Vatican may have asked for a report from Cincinnati under Vos estis – there is a prima facie case – and conducted an investigation within the framework of Vos estis. Then, after examination of the case at the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican may have concluded that Bishop Binzer committed no crime under Vos estis or any other pertinent law. At least, the Vatican may have concluded that Binzer did not do anything for which prosecutors think they can obtain a criminal conviction.
Schafer’s claim, however, was that no Vos estis investigation had taken place, and that the only possible grounds for a Vos estis investigation were deliberate interference in a secular or ecclesiastical criminal investigation. Put bluntly, that claim is inaccurate.
“[A]ction will be taken,” wrote Archbishop Charles J Scicluna – the Church’s leading investigator of abuse and coverup and a major architect of legal reform under both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – in an essay for The Times of Malta on February 23, 2020, explaining the scope of Vos estis, “not only against the perpetrator but also against individuals who interfere with, or seek to avoid, civil or Church investigations.”
“Everyone is accountable for their actions,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “Nobody is above the law.”
Giving all sides the proverbial benefit of the doubt, numerous questions remain.
If Vos estis does not apply to this case, then why does it not apply? On paper, the law seems literally custom made for such situations. If the Vatican determined that Vos estis did not apply to this case, then who made that determination, and how? How, precisely, was Vos estis used? How was it interpreted? If Vos estis is so tightly circumscribed that it cannot be used in obvious cases – cases like this one, in which children in Catholic schools ended up at risk – then, what good is it?
The timeline is sometimes difficult to follow. Some attention is required. Basically, here is how things went.
In 2013 and 2015, the central offices of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati received communications expressing concern over the behaviour of Fr Geoff Drew, who was then pastor of St Maximilian Kolbe parish. The complaints alleged hugging, touching above the knee, commentary on physical appearance, and sexual banter – behaviours child protection experts generally consider as being part of grooming patterns. The central office forwarded the concerns to Bishop Binzer, then head of the Priest Personnel Board.
Bishop Binzer referred the complaints to county prosecutors – who found no evidence of criminal behaviour – but not to his superior or to the Priest Personnel Board, of which he was the head. Bishop Binzer rather met with Fr Drew privately – twice, according to the archdiocese – and according to the archdiocese relied on assurances from the priest that the behaviour would cease.
Archbishop Schnurr learned of the 2015 allegation in the summer of 2018, some short time after Fr Drew began an assignment at St Ignatius Loyola, which the Priest Personnel Board headed by Bishop Binzer had approved earlier that year. A parishioner from Fr Drew’s former parish, St Maximilian Kolbe, wrote to renew the complaints. This time, the letter reached Schnurr, who again referred the complaint to prosecutors, who again declined to bring charges but did warn the archdiocese to keep an eye on Drew.
Fr Drew was suspended from ministry in July 2019 in the wake of other misconduct allegations that had emerged in the meantime.
Also during the summer of 2019, a separate witness came forward to claim that Fr Drew had sexually assaulted him repeatedly, over a period of years from the late 1980s into the early 1990s. That abuse allegedly occurred before Drew entered formation for the priesthood. In connection with those allegations, Drew was arrested and charged with child rape.
Drew has entered a plea of “not guilty” and is to stand trial in October of this year. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser told Cincinnati the local ABC affiliate, WCPO, that he had warned the archdiocese about Fr Drew in September 2018. Gmoser said he told the archdiocese to monitor Drew. The archdiocese preferred at the time to let Drew police his own behaviour.
“We should have put much stronger verification in place,” archdiocesan spokesperson Mike Shafer told reporters at a 2019 news conference, “including telling certain St Ignatius Parish and school leaders,” about the reports of problematic behaviour regarding the pastor of their parish.
The Priest Personnel Board had approved Fr Drew’s transfer to St Ignatius, to which the largest Catholic elementary school in the state of Ohio is attached, in 2018.
Cincinnati archdiocesan spokesperson Jennifer Schack told the Catholic Herald that, because of Bishop Binzer’s alleged failures and omissions, both the archbishop and the personnel board were “in the dark” and left without perception of the situation’s gravity “given they had no information concerning the matter.”
Archbishop Schnurr irate
When Archbishop Schnurr finally did come to know of the mismanagement, he was reportedly furious with his auxiliary, Bishop Binzer. The Catholic News Agency cited chancery officials who said Schnurr had “gone nuclear” and quoted Schnurr as saying, “We obviously made serious mistakes in our handling of this matter, for which we are very sorry.”
Bishop Binzer remained the head of the Priest Personnel Board until August 2019. Binzer also kept his place on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ child protection committee until August 6 of that year – one day after CNA published its own investigative report into the affair – and remained vicar general of the Cincinnati archdiocese even after the reports of his mishandling reached the public.
Archbishop Schnurr sent a report to Rome on August 30 of last year, through the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. Archdiocesan spokesperson Jennifer Schack told the Catholic Herald the archdiocese received no specific no directives associated with compiling the report, which she said the Holy See requested.
A bishop’s remorse – and outstanding questions
The Catholic Telegraph – Cincinnati’s official archdiocesan newspaper – carried a statement from Bishop Binzer saying he was “deeply sorry for [his] role in addressing the concerns raised about Father Drew, which has had a negative impact on the trust and faith of the people of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.”
“In April,” the statement continued, “having studied this matter since last summer, the Holy See informed me that it agreed with this assessment. As a result, and after much prayer and reflection, I offered my resignation from the Office of Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.” Binzer said he believes his resignation to be “in the best interest of the archdiocese.”
The facts of Bishop Binzer’s case suggest it met the threshold for a Vos estis investigation, if not a prosecution, but now it is not clear whether it got either.
Investigations do not always lead to indictments, even when they do result in consequences for the parties that were under investigation. If the Congregation for Bishops requested the report under Vos estis, and determined that Bishop Binzer did not break the law, then one wonders why the Congregation should not say so.
If the Congregation for Bishops determined that Bishop Binzer’s conduct, while not criminal, was nevertheless negligent and damaging to public confidence in Church leadership, it is difficult to understand how either the faithful of Cincinnati or in the Church more broadly considered should suffer harm from knowing it through official channels.
If Bishop Binzer was encouraged to resign, one is at a loss for how knowledge of it could harm the threefold cause of responsibility, accountability, and transparency, in which Pope Francis has called his Curia to lead by example.
*This story was amended to clarify that county prosecutors found no evidence of criminal behaviour when they investigated complaints against Fr Drew in 2013, 2015, and 2018.
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