thank you, Bishop Harpigny!!

By Diogenes (articles - email) | Sep 15, 2010

Is a bishop above the law?

In the United States, a Catholic priest who is credibly accused of sexual abuse is immediately suspended. He is not allowed to wear clerical garb. If the evidence is clear and damning, he may be permanently dismissed from priestly ministry. He may even be reduced to the lay state—“defrocked,” as the newspapers put it—and the Church has nothing more to do with him.

When a bishop is credibly accused of sexual abuse, on the other hand, he is allowed to retire quietly. He retains his title and perquisites. He is treated with respect by his successors; he may even join them in public ceremonies.

Why do bishops escape canonical punishment?

Vatican officials explain that there is no effective provision in canon law for disciplinary action against a bishop. The Pope can request his resignation, but ecclesiastical courts are not set up to take further action against a bishop.

Well, if that is true (and I’ll defer to canon lawyers on that question), canon law needs to be changed—as indeed the canon law applicable to the US was changed in response to the sex-abuse crisis.

Bishop Guy Harpigny of Tournai, Belgium, has made this argument regarding the case of his disgraced colleague, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe. Yes, Vangheluwe has resigned. But Bishop Harpigny wants more. Laicization? Why not? An ecclesiastical trial? Yes. “But any signal would be a good one.”

Any signal, indeed. Even if a canonical trial is impossible, the faithful can still hope and pray that a few bold bishops will speak out to denounce the colleagues who have dragged our Church into scandal. For most of a decade, American Catholics have waited for a bishop—just one bishop!—to say something like this:

I am appalled by the example of Bishop X. He has betrayed us and harmed the Church. He is no longer welcome at meetings of our episcopal conference. He has stained the honor of the episcopate, and is no longer worthy to bear the title of bishop. I shall pray for his conversion, his welfare, and his salvation. But I can no longer consider him a colleague.

In the US, we’re still waiting. But now we hear something very much like that statement, coming from Belgium, where the outrage is still fresh.

Thank you, Bishop Harpigny. Your signal came through, loud and clear.

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