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Brother's keeper - Dolan's DiMarzio probe and the future of 'Vos estis'

Cardinal Timothy Dolan praised his long-time friend and neighbor, Brooklyn’s outgoing Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, during an interview last week with the in-house media shop of the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Dolan told an interviewer that the “Diocese of Brooklyn continues to flourish, thanks to [DiMarzio’s] leadership.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, left, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan walk together during a 2017 procession. Credit: David Galalis/flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

DiMarzio, who will retire from the Brooklyn diocese next month, was a “street priest,” Dolan explained, “which is one of the highest compliments you can give another priest.”

“You make it work by showing up. And Bishop DiMarzio would show up,” Dolan added. “He wouldn’t miss an A&P ribbon cutting.”

The cardinal described warmly his friendship with DiMarzio: “He’s got a laugh that can shake the Empire State Building. And I sort of set as my goal always to get him to laugh, and he loves it,” Dolan said.

He added that DiMarzio was “a good friend, you know...I really became close to him, and I consider him a friend, and a brother, and a real mentor.”


There are a lot of Catholics in the Brooklyn diocese who would agree with Dolan’s praise for the well-loved Bishop DiMarzio, who is popular among his priests and brother bishops, and won accolades among many Catholics last year by pushing back on New York pandemic regulations he called draconian and unfair. 

But for a few observers, Dolan’s praise of DiMarzio probably sounded a bit strange. Those viewers are the ones who remember that in January 2020, Cardinal Dolan was appointed to investigate the allegation that, four decades ago, DiMarzio sexually molested a young boy. 

The alleged victim claimed DiMarzio and another priest had serially molested him in the mid-1970s, at a Jersey City parish where the victim was an altar boy and DiMarzio was in ministry. The bishop vociferously denied the allegation.  

The Holy See ordered an investigation under the terms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 policy promulgated by Pope Francis for investigating bishops. Cardinal Dolan, as metropolitan archbishop of the region, was tapped to conduct the probe.

While it was ongoing, another man alleged that DiMarzio had sexually abused him in the late 1970s, at another parish. DiMarzio denied the charge, too. The allegation was folded into Dolan’s investigation. 

Dolan completed his investigation this summer. In September, the Vatican concluded that the allegations lacked even the “semblance of truth.” Canonically, DiMarzio was cleared, even while lawsuits against him in New Jersey remained ongoing.

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But Dolan’s video last week points to an issue that has been criticized since Vos estis lux mundi was promulgated: DiMarzio’a investigation was overseen by his “friend,” a man he had mentored, a bishop who is “really close to him.”

The proofs for and against DiMarzio were assessed by his “brother,” who would have sent a vota, or recommendation, to the Congregation for Bishops, before the Vatican cleared the Brooklyn bishop.

And the documents of the investigation are not available for public review.

In most other contexts, that kind of conflict-of-interest would be flagged. The investigation would go to someone else. Or at the very least, the man investigating his good friend and neighbor would have the sense not to talk about it on YouTube. 

Not so with the Church.

Of course, it may be that DiMarzio is innocent — the Vatican’s conclusion was unambiguous, after all. And it may be that Dolan’s investigation was entirely impartial and above board —  despite his close friendship with DiMarzio —  especially because the cardinal contracted third-party investigators to handle the actual review of witnesses and proofs.

But the buck stopped with Dolan. And most investigators know that overseeing a look into a friend’s life is difficult, because unconscious bias, or a willingness to confer the benefit of the doubt beyond reason, is an obvious and manifest risk.

Cover-ups are rarely elaborate plots hatched by evildoers with Snidley Whiplash mustaches. Cover-ups, at least in the Church, are more often a failure to judge matters objectively and act accordingly — often because of closeness to the person accused of wrongdoing.

Furthermore, most victims’ advocates know that credibility and public trust depend as much on the appearance of propriety as on propriety itself.  

That is why reform advocates have called for said third-party investigators, who do not have social and fraternal entanglements with the accused, are necessary for the Church to respond credibly to misconduct among the episcopate.

But for now, the Church says that Vos estis is a just way to investigate allegations against bishops. It is easy to understand why alleged victims, and ordinary Catholics for that matter, might suggest the process is not enough. 


Regardless of whether DiMarzio is actually innocent, it seems unlikely that Dolan’s testimony on their years of friendship will do much to bolster confidence in the Church’s approach. In fact, it may call into question the credibility of other Vos estis lux mundi investigations. 

At least three sitting U.S. diocesan bishops are under investigation in the Church right now — there could be more, but the Holy See does not always acknowledge when a bishop is being investigated. If those bishops are exonerated for allegations of cover-up or abuse, it will be worth asking whether they too were investigated by close friends — and whether those friends had motive or opportunity for impropriety.

And it is worth asking whether an investigation overseen by his friend was fair to DiMarzio himself — whether it has sufficient legitimacy to support his claim of innocence, especially with no Freedom of Information Act, in the complete absence of proofs available to review. 

If not, that might suggest a new way of addressing the problem.

The norms of Vos estis were approved in May 2019, for a three year experimental period, which will expire next May. When they are reviewed, it might be worth careful Vatican consideration of whether investigations conducted by a friend — a brother, even— can really be seen as investigations at all. 

If not, Vos estis might well find itself back on the drawing board.

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