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Fr Raymond de Souza: A bombshell in Baltimore

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, at the bishops' meeting in Baltimore (CNS)

Whether the issue is abuse or administration, Francis readily exercises his supreme authority over bishops

It has been evident for some years, but now it has been hammered home with breathtaking emphasis. Pope Francis has decided that he, and he alone, will hold bishops accountable for sexual misconduct or negligence in handling cases of sexual abuse.

It is a high-risk strategy that brings every case to the heart of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the Holy Father huddles with his inner circle. Neither bishops’ conferences nor the Roman Curia will take the lead on the vexed issue of holding bishops accountable. The Holy Father will do it himself.

The news came as an utter surprise to the American bishops, who were meeting in Baltimore to establish a new “code of conduct” for bishops and to form a special lay commission to handle allegations against bishops. For months, as the “summer of shame” brought the anger of Catholics down upon their heads, they have been looking to take concrete action this week.

But as the Holy See saw that the Americans were prepared to move ahead, the nuncio in Washington, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, was summoned last week to Rome for urgent consultations with Pope Francis. On Sunday afternoon the Congregation for Bishops asked the Americans not to move ahead, delaying any action until after the sexual abuse summit in February, when Pope Francis will meet the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences.

The news from Rome arrived exactly two weeks to the day after Pope Francis said that the “primary fruit” of the recent synod of bishops was a new way of “working together” in a “synodal style”. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US bishops’ conference, tartly noted that the edict from Rome did not seem very “synodical”. Fair enough, but perhaps Cardinal DiNardo missed the clear signs Pope Francis has been sending that he, and he alone, will be the one to decide.

Pope Francis explained repeatedly in 2014 and 2015 that the “synodal style” allows the Spirit to work in messy ways because everything proceeds “with Peter and under Peter”, and that the simple “presence of the Pope” is a sufficient guarantee that matters are handled properly. While that might have some validity in doctrinal matters, it manifestly does not apply in governance. But as has been clear for some time, the Holy Father does act with supreme authority when it comes to sex abuse.

In 2015, the executive of the Chilean bishops’ conference beseeched the Holy Father not to transfer Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno. It did not matter what the Chilean leadership thought, or what the people of Osorno thought when they protested against their new bishop. The Holy Father had decided, and that was that.

For three years Pope Francis accused his Chilean critics of being “stupid” and guilty of grave sins (“calumny”). Yet after his trip to Chile in January 2018 ended in catastrophe, he changed his mind. And when the pontifical mind changed, his denunciation of the Chilean bishops was ferocious. The pontifical remedy was unprecedented – the entire national episcopate offered their resignations. Pope Francis effectively made himself the bishop of an entire nation. He accepted some resignations – seven to date – and refused others, but never with any explanation or rationale offered. The Pope, and the Pope alone, would organise the entire renewal of the Chilean Church from the Sanctae Marthae.

On the return flight from Dublin in August, Pope Francis made his thinking clear. Despite his own legislation in 2016 calling for various offices of the Roman Curia to set up tribunals to judge errant bishops, it seemed “neither to be feasible nor suitable”. So instead “the Pope sets up a jury more capable of taking that case.”

Instead of the norms he himself promulgated, Pope Francis prefers to take such cases now “personally” to exercise his own right to judge. No longer will there be tribunals established to judge cases; the Holy Father will set up whatever he considers necessary on an ad hoc basis to make the decision himself. That was done in the case of Guam, where the archbishop was found guilty of (undisclosed) offences in a canonical trial. The archbishop was removed by Pope Francis, without an explicit reason being given.

In September, Cardinal DiNardo asked for an apostolic visitation into the McCarrick affair. Pope Francis turned him down flat, probably because the American bishops wanted the visitation’s results to be public. Pope Francis had authorised an apostolic visitation just 90 days earlier for the Diocese of Memphis. The results were kept private and Pope Francis took the decision himself. Bishop Martin Holley was removed last month; no rationale was offered.

In 2017, Pope Francis had authorised an apostolic visitation for Honduras, where the auxiliary bishop of Tecugiculpa, Bishop Juan Pineda, faced accusations of financial and sexual misconduct. After reviewing the results, Pope Francis removed Bishop Pineda from office – again, without public explanation.

The bombshell in Baltimore confirms what the Holy Father has already made clear. He alone will decide when an investigation is needed. He alone will review the results. Only he will judge, and his judgment will be given without reasons.

It’s not only Americans who will have to live with that, but the entire Church. And the Holy Father himself, for if anything should go wrong, he alone will take the blame. That’s not a position that any Catholic would want the Holy Father to be in.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of