News Analysis

When a bishop resigns, the faithful have a right to know why

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Virbalas, who just wanted to be a Jesuit again (Kauno Arkivyskupija)

“Transparency” was one of the buzzwords over the four days of February 21-24, during which 190 people gathered in the Vatican to discuss child protection in the Church. So it was hard to avoid the impression the Vatican scored a bit of an own goal on Friday last week, when it announced the resignation of 57-year-old Archbishop Lionginas Virbalas SJ from the Lithuanian Archdiocese of Kaunas, to which Pope Francis had appointed him in 2015.

The problem wasn’t the resignation, per se, but that no explanation accompanied the announcement from the press office. Bishops resign several times a week, but when a 57-year-old bishop of a major see resigns unexpectedly, people ask questions and journalists look for reasons.

For many years, the practice of the press office was to say whether a bishop was resigning under Canon 401§1 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that a diocesan bishop who has turned 75 must submit his resignation. Canon 401§2 says that a diocesan bishop who cannot fulfil his duties “because of ill health or some other grave cause” is also “earnestly requested to present his resignation from office”.

In the recent case of Bishop Michael Bransfield, emeritus of Wheeling-Charleston, Pope Francis waited until Bransfield was required by law to submit his resignation, then accepted it within a week of its submission, before opening a canonical investigation into Bransfield’s record; Bransfield is accused of sexual misconduct involving adults. (Investigations are ongoing and Bransfield insists that he has never sexually abused anyone.) So even a resignation accepted for reaching the age limit is not a guarantee there was no concern over a bishop’s conduct in office.

In 2016, the Vatican stopped offering explanations when bishops resigned. Last year, when Bishop José Ronaldo Ribeiro of Formosa resigned after allegations of financial misconduct, the connection was thereby fairly obvious – though he denies any wrongdoing. In others, however, it might be less so. One thinks of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, about whose proclivities Pope Benedict XVI was informed when he accepted the disgraced former archbishop of Washington’s resignation in 2006 – after McCarrick had turned 75.

There is no reason the Holy See might not use “health reasons” as a fig leaf, but at least it would be on the record. On that point, one thinks of the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. In 2017, Pope Francis allowed Zanchetta to resign from the See of Orán in Argentina, to which Francis had appointed him in 2013. The press office of the Holy See gave no reason for that resignation, either, but Zanchetta separately cited ill health.

Four months after Zanchetta’s resignation, Francis named him to a specially created position within the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (Apsa), which oversees Vatican real estate and financial holdings. In January this year, reports emerged suggesting Zanchetta’s troubles were moral and legal, rather than medical. Officials in Orán had reported to the Vatican serious ambiguities in Zanchetta’s behaviour as early as 2015 – and again in 2017, before Zanchetta’s resignation.

When the news broke, Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the press office of the Holy See, issued a statement – which he later reiterated when more evidence came to light – saying that “at the time of [Bishop Zanchetta’s] resignation [in 2017]” there were “accusations of authoritarianism against him, but there had been no accusation of sexual abuse”. That may be technically true: there was apparently no formal legal complaint involving accusations of sexual misconduct until autumn 2018.

It appears that Pope Francis acted on the Zanchetta case either before he had all the pertinent facts, or despite them. In either case, he protected a man currently under formal investigation for grave sexual and financial misconduct.

When it comes to transparency, there are many thorny issues concerning how to achieve it while respecting rights and ensuring procedural integrity. Nevertheless, one of the “no-brainers” which organisers of the February meeting on child protection discussed quite openly was precisely a change in secrecy regarding the reasons for a bishop’s removal.

“I believe that if a bishop has been removed for incompetence – financial, his administration, or whatever – those things should be said,” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, a principal organiser of the February meeting, told the National Catholic Reporter.

Another organiser of the February meeting, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, told the Reporter that in the past “there was a resistance to giving the real reason or the reasons” for a bishop’s removal. “That needs to change,” he said.

The issue, however, isn’t only with bishops who face forcible removal for incompetence or misconduct. If a bishop has served honourably, let him retire with an acknowledgement of his service. If a bishop is suspected of wrongdoing, and has submitted his resignation in order to avoid being deposed, let the Holy See say so. If a bishop is forcibly removed, the faithful have a right to know why.

It seems that Archbishop Virbalas merely wanted to go be a Jesuit again. So why not just say so?