Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Vatican’s disciplinary double standard

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 30, 2022

The last few years have established that a Catholic bishop can be removed from office because of misconduct—unless he enjoys the favor of Pope Francis. Two journalists have illustrated the point this week:

For Catholic World Report, Christopher Altieri looks into the astonishing saga of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, formerly of the Oran diocese, who is now imprisoned in Argentina for sexual abuse. A secular court found him guilty, but an ecclesiastical tribunal has reached no conclusion and, incredibly, the canon lawyer who defended Zanchetta is now investigating his accusers—with the approval of the Vatican, on an assignment “direct from the Holy Father.”

After listing the steps that Pope Francis had already taken to protect Zanchetta (bringing him to Rome to avoid questions in Argentina, creating a new Vatican post for him, etc.), Altieri writes:

One supposes Pope Francis is not really intent on ruining the psychological and spiritual health of the clergy in Orán, Argentina. One supposes Francis does not care to destroy what little confidence in his own leadership may remain among the faithful of that place. One supposes Francis does not intend to make a mockery of law, government, and common sense.

But it’s getting more and more difficult to suppose.

Then at the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin compares the Vatican’s treatment of two prelates: Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torrez, who was removed from the Diocese of Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Bishop Richard Stika, who remains at the helm in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Bishop Fernandez has protested his removal, calling it “totally unjust,” and since March has been seeking a meeting with Pope Francis and an explanation for his removal— neither of which he has been granted. His only known offense is disagreement with other bishops in Puerto Rico, notably Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan. Ironically, Archbishop Gonzalez was himself asked to resign several years ago, because of complaints that included—you guessed it—a failure to act against priests accused of abuse. But Gonzalez remains in office and Fernandez is out.

And Bishop Stika is still in Knoxville, despite a series of serious complaints about, among things, his handling of abuse cases. A Vatican investigation of his leadership was conducted, and the results reported to Rome, but to date no action has been taken. Perhaps, for all we know, no action should be taken. But we know what complaints were lodged against Bishop Stika, whereas we still don’t know the nature of complaints against Bishop Fernandez.

Looking at the obvious disparities in the Vatican’s handling of disciplinary cases involving bishops, one prelate in Rome (who unfortunately chose to speak anonymously) told Pentin: “I fear that decisions depend very much upon who are the friends of the accused bishop and how much they have the ear of the Pope.”

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 See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Millán Yuso - Jul. 02, 2022 5:19 AM ET USA

    There is a noun for this cultural phenomenon: “caciquismo”. (Leadership by bossman. Several adjectives may apply: look up boludo, peronista, mafioso.) How long, indeed?

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Jul. 01, 2022 10:34 AM ET USA

    Is it any wonder that Catholics are leaving the church? The proliferation of veiled and duplicitous actions (and theology) on the part of the highest clergy impugns that of every priest by way of doubt in his faithfulness. Unfortunately, those of us of your persuasion must be few and far between. I see from looking at weekly bulletins that collections aren't severely down, so a major indicator of disapproval at parishes is absent even in the face of thinly attended Masses. Too bad.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jun. 30, 2022 11:37 PM ET USA

    There is a word for this: corruption. Although there has always been some corruption at various levels of every human organization, Francis seems to have taken it to a level not seen for centuries in the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 30, 2022 7:48 PM ET USA

    The double standard of justice that we find these days coming from the Vatican appears to mirror the double standard of justice that we find these days coming from Washington.