“It’s a discussion that I think a lot of people would like to have,” said Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini of the new proposal. Register file photo

Proposal would increase power of archbishops in dealing with sex abuse

  • December 14, 2018

A proposal by American bishops has borrowed from medieval practice to offer a solution to the complex canon-law conundrum of how to hold bishops to account for sexual misconduct and abuse coverups.

In advance of a February meeting between Pope Francis and the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich has proposed that metropolitan archbishops be empowered to investigate bishops in their ecclesiastical provinces. Should an archbishop be accused of either misconduct or covering up abuse crimes, the most senior bishop in the province would oversee the investigation.

Metropolitan archbishops last had that kind of power over their suffragan bishops in about the 12th century, when the papacy sought to limit the influence of princes, kings and emperors on Church affairs. In modern canon law, the powers and role of metropolitans is dispensed in just four paragraphs (Canons 435 to 438 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law) which deals mainly with ceremonial roles and rare, emergency circumstances. 

Under current practice, abuse-related complaints about bishops are investigated by a special office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome and only the Pope can sanction bishops. The U.S. proposal, a response to several cases of inappropriate conduct by American bishops, would see metropolitan archbishops made more powerful and provinces more important.

In the Roman Rite, Canada has 18 ecclesiastical provinces, each led by an archbishop. Collectively the 18 archbishops oversee 42 suffragan dioceses, each of which is led by a diocesan bishop. For example, Cardinal Archbishop Thomas Collins of the Archdiocese of Toronto heads an ecclesiastical province which includes the dioceses of St. Catharines, London, Hamilton and Thunder Bay. 

“It’s a discussion that I think a lot of people would like to have,” said Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini of the Cupich proposal. “I certainly would be curious to know how we actually would fit into all of this beyond the honorary titles. If we can resurrect something that was in fact practised at another time, because it seems to fit with who we are called to be now, then let’s look at it. It’s like returning to the sources, in a manner of speaking.”

A move away from centralization makes sense, said University of St. Michael’s College professor of medieval studies Giulio Silano.

“Reviving the provinces as real units of Church governance theoretically fits better with the Church’s social doctrine than unbridled centralization,” he told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. 

Mancini has faced the problem in real life. In 2009, then Antigonish Bishop Raymond Lahey was found with child pornography on his laptop. He pled guilty to charges of importing child pornography in  2011 and was laicized by the Vatican one year later.

Right after Lahey’s arrest, Mancini was asked to step in and become administrator of his suffragan diocese. But his role did not extend to an investigation of Lahey’s conduct or administration of the diocese. The Vatican’s nuncio in Canada was responsible for reporting the incident to Rome, and the Church investigation and trial happened there.

It was the priests of Antigonish who first sought Mancini’s help.

“There was a sort of natural movement towards going to the metropolitan, because I guess there’s a sense in which some people see the archbishop as having some sort of authority over suffragan dioceses, but that’s kind of left over from another time and place,” Mancini said. 

The real investigation into Lahey was a police matter handled by civil authorities, which is exactly the way Mancini believes it should have been handled. “If there’s a criminal activity that’s been engaged in, let the police be brought in immediately,” he said.

The principle of subsidiarity outlined during the Second Vatican Council proclaimed problems should be solved and decisions taken at the lowest possible level.

“It’s a valid principle. There was a time when metropolitans did have much more direct authority over their provinces,” Mancini said.

“It makes some sense to proceed in this way, since it would not require an entirely new set or level of bureaucracy,” said Saint Paul University professor of canon law Fr. Becket Soule. “Currently, archbishops tend to serve as co-ordinators for regional action and do not exercise direct jurisdiction in the dioceses of their suffragans outside of severe cases of neglect or negligence.”

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