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Brooklyn bishop cleared of abuse allegations by Vatican-ordered investigation

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has cleared Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of allegations that he committed acts of sexual abuse. The Vatican congregation, which handles all alleged cases of abuse of minors, ruled that the claims against the bishop “did not have the semblance of truth.”

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. Credit: Nicholas Erikson/CC-BY-2.0

The decision closes a nearly two-year process. In January 2020, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was directed by the CDF to conduct an investigation into allegations that DiMarzio, 77, sexually abused a male student, a minor, in the 1970s. A second man then came forward and accused DiMarzio of sexually abusing him in 1979 and 1980.

“Given this finding, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not authorize any further canonical process to address the accusations,” a statement from the New York archdiocese said Sept. 1.

DiMarzio has repeatedly declared his innocence, and insisted he would clear his name in both canonical and civil courts, as necessary.

The canonical investigation was authorized by the Vatican under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the new law issued by Pope Francis in 2019, following his special summit of the heads of the world’s bishops conferences to address the sexual abuse crisis and the question of episcopal accountability in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal.

“I repeat what I have said from the beginning. There is no truth to these allegations,” DiMarzio said Wednesday in response to the CDF’s decision. “Throughout my more than 50-year ministry as a priest, I have never abused anyone.”

“As promised, I fully cooperated with this inquiry, because I know I did nothing wrong. I have prayed for a conclusion to this investigation, and these final results further verify, as I have consistently said, that these allegations have absolutely no merit.”

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Michael Garabedian, the lawyer representing the two accusers, dismissed the Vatican’s conclusion, saying in a statement that the investigation was “subjective and biased because the investigators were controlled by and paid for by the Catholic Church.”

Under the terms of Vos estis, the CDF delegated Cardinal Dolan to conduct the investigation as the local metropolitan archbishop. The Archdiocese of New York announced that the cardinal had engaged the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills and the Freeh Group, headed by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, the results of which were forwarded to the Vatican.

“The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which rendered the decision, is in the business of continuing the secrecy of clergy sexual abuse by hiding the truth,” said Garabedian. “My clients will continue to pursue their claims in the civil courts and justice will prevail when the truth is revealed.”

DiMarzio’s lawyer said in a separate statement that the Vatican’s conclusion was based on “an impartial and rigorous factual investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor John O’Donnell, partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, as well as the investigative firm founded by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.”

“Both are former law enforcement officials with proven experience and impeccable integrity and the result of their investigation should leave no doubt. As the language of the decision stated, the allegations against Bishop DiMarzio have been found to have no semblance of truth.”

Responding to the news that he had been cleared by the Vatican, DiMarzio said he remains “focused on leading the Diocese of Brooklyn as we are emerging from the darkness of the Coronavirus pandemic.  I ask for your prayers as I continue to fight against the lawsuits stemming from these two allegations, and as I now look forward to clearing my name in the New Jersey state courts.”

Despite the lengthy period of time taken for the investigation, the declaration by the CDF that the allegations do not have a “semblance of truth” means that the allegations did not meet the lowest level of evidence needed to begin a formal canonical process.

When an allegation of sexual abuse is made in the Church, a preliminary determination is made regarding the factual plausibility of the allegations; this normally consists of assessing if the alleged crime was theoretically possible with regard to persons, time, and place, and is not meant to be an assessment of the otherwise credibility of the accuser, their narrative, or any other evidence.

It is rare that an allegation is rejected at this stage of the canonical process, and when handling historic accusations of sexual abuse against priests, diocesan review boards are often criticised for endorsing claims as “credible” or “substantiated” when they have only met the basic legal test of being possible.

While it is common for priests facing similar accusations to be removed from ministry while an investigation is pending, DiMarzio remained in post as Bishop of Brooklyn during the 21-month process, during which time he was widely praised for his leadership of the diocese during the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the borough of Brooklyn especially hard.

At 77 years old, the bishop has remained in his position for two years beyond the age at which bishops are required to submit letters of resignation to the pope; he has been under investigation for most of those years.

Under DiMarzio’s leadership the Diocese of Brookly won a 2020 Supreme Court injunction against lockdown measures in New York which singled out religious institutions for special restriction even while other businesses were allowed to reopen. That injunction led to similar measures being struck down by courts across the country.

DiMarzio is one of several U.S. bishops to be investigated under the terms of Vos estis since it was issued by the pope two years ago.

In September 2019, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Minnesota Diocese of Crookston became the first bishop in the world to be investigated under the provisions of Vos estis. The investigation centered around allegations that Hoeppner coerced a diaconal candidate to recant an allegation that he had been abused as a minor by a priest, and was broadened to include other allegations of negligence by Hoeppner.

In April of this year, following the conclusion of an investigation by local metropolitan Archbishop Bernad Hebda of St. Paul - Minneapolis, Hoeppner resigned his office at the request of Pope Francis.

In August 2019, the Vatican authorized a preliminary investigation into allegations that Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston committed acts of sexual abuse while he was a priest in the New York in the 1970s. The bishop denied the allegations and also remained in ministry during a Vatican investigation, which ended in December last year, also with the conclusion that the allegations lacked the “semblance of truth.”

In February, the Archdiocese of Kansas City announced Monday that Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, Kansas had been accused of committing sexual abuse against a minor and would be investigated local metropolitan Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City under the new norms.

Unlike DiMarzio and Guglielmone, Brungardt has taken a leave of absence while the investigation continues.

In October 2020, the Congregation for Bishops ordered an investigation into allegations concerning Cantu’s handling of abuse and misconduct cases in his former diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The investigation is also being conducted under the provisions of Vos estis, and is being overseen by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. That investigation remains ongoing.