— Rome, 02 Nov 2020, Catholic Herald — Pope Francis has granted a Sacramento priest’s request for voluntary laicisation, after the priest had been credibly accused by an adult woman of serious sexual crimes under Church law, some of them involving the confessional and other sacraments, and had been on trial for several years. The priest — then-Fr Jeremy Leatherby — had much more recently been under excommunication for denying Pope Francis’s legitimacy.
The Catholic Herald reported on then-Fr. Leatherby’s case in August of this year.
In technical parlance, Mr Leatherby’s request is known as a petition for the “grace” of dispensation from the obligations arising from Sacred Orders. Leatherby made the request in August of this year, after he incurred his excommunication latae sententiae, later made public by Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento. Leatherby was still was still under canonical process when he made his petition.
In layman’s terms, Pope Francis allowed him to resign from the ranks of the clergy rather than face almost certain conviction and the resulting penalty, which would likely have been penal dismissal from the clerical state, though Pope Francis has reduced the sentences of convicted abuser-clerics in the past and had set up an appellate panel to review such cases. Quietly set up in 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal, the panel was active no less recently than late December 2018.
In a letter to the faithful of Sacramento published Monday, Bishop Soto praised the woman who brought the initial allegation against then-Fr Leatherby — in 2016 — and acknowledged that she “and her family have suffered more than has been revealed.” Soto added: “Along with her testimony, other accounts of the silent suffering of women have been laid upon my heart.”
“It is disturbing,” Bishop Soto further wrote in the letter, “that [Mr Leatherby] has now placed himself outside of any ecclesial accountability. Both the abuse of his position of trust then his own lack of trust in the authority of the Church brought about the decisions of September 10, 2020,” the date on which Pope Francis granted the petition.
Bishop Soto called the granting of Mr Leatherby’s request a “necessary decision by the Holy Father,” and added that it “now requires further steps.” Soto went on to say, “I must own and atone for the wounds that have been inflicted. I am sorry that vulnerable souls were abused,” and their trust betrayed. “Their confidence in the Church’s saving grace was shaken,” he said. “Their anguish requires respect, care and contrition from me.”
As part of the further steps, Bishop Soto has called the priests of his diocese to “humility, accountability, and personal sacrifice” as “the remedies we offer to the People of God.” He has asked priests to join him in offering a day of reparation for sins of clerical abuse on Friday, 6 November 2020. “Fast on that day, if able to do so,” Soto said. “Offer a Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pray for the victims of clergy abuse asking for God’s merciful healing upon them.”
The Bishop of Sacramento also calls priests to “pray for one another,” that they might “generously, chastely and joyfully exercise our priestly duties for the good of the Church and the glory of God.” Bishop Soto added, “The Faithful are welcomed to join with the clergy in this act of reparation.”
The story of Jeremy Leatherby leaves several questions unanswered.
Why did Mr Leatherby’s trial take so long, and how is it that Pope Francis was able so quickly to grant his petition? “The process extended over years,” wrote Bishop Soto, “provoking frustration and anger from all sides as well as from many quarters, and with good reason.” Whether of mercy or of “economy of process” as it is called in Rome, such acts are often months and even years in the making. Why did Pope Francis grant it at all, rather than insist Mr Leatherby face judgment?
“The grave nature of these actions [of then-Fr Leatherby] made me certain that Jeremy Leatherby could not return to public ministry,” wrote Bishop Soto. “Dimensions of the initial accusation,” however, “made necessary a canonical trial, mandated by the Holy See and welcomed by Mr. Leatherby.”
In Mr Leatherby’s case, the allegations of one courageous victim are submitted to a candid world, and Bishop Soto “came to a moral certitude that the alleged prohibited behavior against the sixth commandment had transpired in the case of the accuser as well as with other adult women.”
The “necessary decision” Pope Francis has now taken closes a chapter, and Bishop Soto’s hope “that the Good Shepherd will bring his healing light to dispel the stormy clouds that have for too long plagued many of the faithful and clergy of the Diocese of Sacramento,” is likely to be met with general sympathy and approbation.
There are other chapters yet to be written, certainly, in other jurisdictions.