Bishop Raymond Lahey, pictured in an undated photo, is very likely to set canon law history by being dismissed from the clerical state.

Lahey likely to be defrocked under canon law norms

  • May 5, 2011

He's still a bishop and the proper title is still "The Most Reverend" Raymond Lahey, but the former bishop of Antigonish, a confessed hoarder of child porn, is very likely to set canon law history by being dismissed from the clerical state.

New norms to deal with priests who use child pornography became Church law just a year ago. In May 2010 a new list of grave acts to be judged by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) included the possession, acquisition or distribution of pornographic images of a minor under 14 years old for the purposes of sexual gratification by whatever means and using whatever technology.

Lahey is likely be the first bishop transferred to the lay state (defrocked) as a punishment for possessing child porn after he pled guilty to charges in an Ottawa courtroom May 4.

It's hard to say how long it will take, but the congregation has a clear mandate from Pope Benedict XVI to prosecute such cases, said Chad Glendinning, a canon law professor at Ottawa's Saint Paul University.

In a case like Lahey's, where the crime has been confessed and established in a civil court, a quicker procedure, short of a trial, can be applied, though the right of the bishop to defend himself remains, said Glendinning.

Sacramentorum Sactitatis Tutela, a collection of legal norms originally written under the direction of Pope Benedict when he was prefect of the CDF, then revised in 2010, leaves it up to the CDF to decide who can be made into a lay person by reason of serious crimes. The norms are also known by the title "De delictis gravoribus."

Under canon law, only the Pope may pass judgement on a bishop. However, the CDF has been given the faculty to act in the name of the Pope.

"If guilt is established then they could request or reach their own conclusion regarding dismissal from the clerical state. I should also note that rarely happens for a bishop," said Glendinning.

Another unlikely possibility is excommunication. Lahey's confessed crimes are not matters of heresy, apostasy or schism.

In most cases, exommunication is "a type of medicinal penalty," said Glendinning. The idea is to get the attention of the offender in the hope of inspiring some repentance.

"Once contumacy or obstinancy ceases, the penalty is to be removed," said Glendinning.

The only recent cases include a 2008 request from Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who asked to be laicized before running for president of his country. Priests and bishops are forbidden from holding public office by canon law. And in 2009 the Holy See reduced Zambian Bishop Emmanuel Milingo to the lay state after he had been excommunicated in 2006. Milingo had married a woman in a 2001 ceremony conducted by Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. In 2006 he ordained four married men as bishops without a papal mandate.

The 2010 revised norms make the Lahey case something of a slam dunk, according to Glendinning.

"This gives the CDF more ammunition," he said. "Even though the abuse of a minor may not have physically taken place, it's still a grave delict to even possess pornographic images of a minor."

Declaring Lahey's ordination invalid or annulled, as one might for a marriage, is an extremely remote possibility, said Glendinning.

"There are grave consequences to doing that," he said.

If it were decided Lahey's psychological immaturity or impairment prevented him from making a free decision to be ordained in the first place, and thus no true ordination took place, it would mean that every Mass he celebrated and every absolution he granted in Confession since becoming a priest in 1963, and every ordination he performed since 2003, would be invalid.

"I'm not aware of this (declaring an ordination invalid) happening very often, especially in the case of a bishop, because the implications are huge," said Glendinning.

Legally made into a lay person, Lahey would remain a priest and a bishop "ontologically." All sacraments, including ordination, are eternal. But Lahey would not be permitted to present himself as a priest or administer the sacraments.

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