Even in a bishop’s resignation, signs of waffling in Rome

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 19, 2018

“Now a bishop must be above reproach,” wrote St. Paul [1 Tim 3:2]. Apparently Bishop Alexander Salazar, whose resignation the Pope accepted today, was not above reproach. Yet he remained a bishop in active ministry, serving as an auxiliary in the largest archdiocese in the US, for more than a decade after the Vatican recognized a problem. Why?

As usual the Vatican itself provided absolutely no information about the reasons for Bishop Salazar’s early resignation. It was left to an American prelate—in this case Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles—to offer an explanation. And even his public announcement left key questions unanswered.

Bishop Salazar was first accused of misconduct in 2002: the year when the American bishops assured us they had fully addressed the sex-abuse problem. At the time he was a parish priest. Two years later he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop. So the first question arises: weren’t candidates for episcopal office thoroughly vetted, especially in those early months after the institution of the Dallas Charter?

Archbishop Gomez has a reasonable answer to that question. The complaint against Salazar was made to civil authorities in 2002, he tells us; church officials only learned about it in 2005, when he was already an auxiliary in Los Angeles. Fair enough. Since the Dallas Charter does not provide for disciplinary action against bishops, the archdiocese brought the case to the attention of the Vatican. After an investigation, Archbishop Gomez tells us, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) “imposed certain precautionary measures on the ministry of Bishop Salazar.”

Well, was he guilty or not? Bishop Salazar says that he is innocent. The district attorney who investigated the original complaint declined to press charges. But the CDF apparently found some reason for concern. So an important new question: If the bishop had been cleared of misconduct charges, why would there be “precautionary measures”? On the other hand, if he was guilty—indeed, if there was even a shadow of suspicion, so that he could not be considered “above reproach”—then why was he allowed to remain in active ministry?

Eventually Archbishop Gomez, obviously anxious to bring some clarity to the situation, asked the Vatican. He “requested and received permission from the Congregation for Bishops at the Holy See to submit the allegation to the Archdiocese’s independent Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board.” The review board determined that the old charge against Bishop Salazar was credible. On the basis of that finding, the Vatican sought his resignation.

Now we face yet another set of questions. Did the conclusion of the LA review board match that of the CDF? That is, had the CDF also considered the complaint credible? Clearly the CDF had found something amiss: a problem significant enough to call for restrictions on the bishop’s ministry. So then why was a new investigation necessary?

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that the CDF was content to let a bishop remain in ministry, even though he was under a cloud of suspicion, until an American prelate, Archbishop Gomez, pressed for decisive action. And then the Vatican was content to issue a bare-bones announcement of his resignation, leaving the American to explain. Whatever serious investigation was done, whatever disciplinary action was taken, whatever accountability was demanded, happened because an American archbishop overcame the foot-dragging in Rome.

Heaven knows the American bishops have handled the abuse scandal poorly. But at this point the American hierarchy is light-years ahead of the Vatican in pushing for accountability and transparency, the two key ingredients of any effective reform. In November, Pope Francis instructed the American bishops not to proceed with their own plans for stronger action to hold bishops accountable: another instance of the Vatican obstructing the American response.

In February the leaders of the US bishops’ conference will meet with their counterparts from around the world, to plan a coordinated response to this crisis. Let’s hope and pray—and demand—that the American bishops vigorously promote their own plans, rather than waiting on the uncertain leadership from Rome.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Dec. 19, 2018 7:18 PM ET USA

    Please don't laud anybody in a process that took 13 years to resolve. This is not acceptable, period. Archbishop Gomez should have set him on the sidelines. I hope we don't hear of any other abuse during those 13 years. If we do, more resignations should happen.