For bishops like Hoeppner and Binzer, what comes next?

Analysis

Bishops in the news this week point to a question important but unaddressed by the Apostolic See and U.S. Catholic leaders: What should happen next for bishops forced to leave office after failures in administrative leadership and governance? 

Should they be formally deposed? Are they expected to ride off into the sunset? Is there some role for them in the Church? Are they supposed to be “cancelled?”

The question is especially vexing for bishops who have been permitted to resign, rather than being formally removed for some clearly stated misdeeds.

Unless the Holy See addresses that question, differing sets of expectations will lead inevitably to frustration among practicing Catholics about what such bishops are doing, and how other Catholic leaders have seemed to respond.

And those problems will not soon go away.

On Tuesday, the Holy See announced the resignation of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota. Hoeppner’s resignation followed a 20-month investigation into charges he pressured an aspiring deacon to recant a claim he had been abused by a priest as a teenager, and mishandled other cases of abuse and misconduct in the diocese.

Hoeppner was allowed to resign, rather than face removal, even while he has admitted under oath to violating legal and canonical reporting obligations, along with other significant breaches of judgment. 

On the same day his resignation was announced by the Holy See, the Diocese of Crookston announced that Hoeppner would celebrate a “Mass of Thanksgiving” to conclude his time in the diocese. The bishop plans to “move out of state to a warmer climate,” he told Catholics in a letter posted April 13 on the diocesan website.

“I look forward to returning to Crookston for personal visits and will await the appointment of a new bishop here to determine other activity,” said Hoeppner, adding “You have a bishop who loves you.” 

Hoeppner is the first U.S. bishop to leave office after a Vos estis lux mundi investigation; his exit may well set the tone and customs of such departures.

And since the announcement of his resignation, his retirement to [apparently] the Sun Belt, and his farewell Mass, many Catholics - priests, laypeople, and especially abuse survivors - have expressed frustration with a friendly send-off for the bishop.

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Also this week, some Cincinnati Catholics have expressed surprise that Bishop Joseph Binzer has been appointed the pastor of two Ohio parishes. Binzer resigned as auxiliary bishop last year after he was found not to have reported allegations of serial clerical grooming and misconduct to other diocesan officials, even while he did report them to law enforcement. As a result of that lapse, a priest now facing trial on nine counts of rape was transferred to an assignment leading a large parish and its school. 

Can a bishop who resigned under those circumstances be entrusted with the curae animarum - the sacred care of souls at the heart of a pastor’s ministry? At least some practicing Catholics have expressed serious reservations. 

But there is very little canonical clarity about what should happen next when a bishop like Hoeppner or Binzer loses his office, or even how they should lose it in the first place. Especially because neither bishop has been tried for a canonical crime.

Hoeppner was investigated under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, Pope Francis’ legal reform issued in 2019 in the wake of the McCarrick scandal. The law allows for the investigation of negligence, malpractice, or abuse by a bishop. And while several such investigations have been opened against US bishops, they have yet to lead to a penal removal of office for anyone.

Vos estis is essentially an investigative procedural manual, not a prosecutorial tool. But other laws promulgated by the pope do provide for bishops to be deposed from their offices, if they have been found to have committed canonical crimes, as Hoeppner seems likely to have done. 

In June 2016, Franics promulgated Come una madre amorevole, which established new crimes for which a serving diocesan bishop could be punished.

Come una madre provides that “The diocesan Bishop… can be legitimately removed from this office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole. The harm may be physical, moral, spiritual or through the use of patrimony.”

Despite the apparent harm done by Hoeppner in pressuring an aspiring deacon to drop claims of sexual abuse in exchange for ordination, the bishop was not tried nor fired — he has instead been allowed to throw himself a retirement party.

If the bishop had been found guilty of a canonical crime, the Mass would not have been scheduled.

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The Church’s decision not to try a bishop like Hoeppner leaves him in an ambiguous place: Not permitted to lead a diocese, but not declared unfit for ministry either. The bishop is left mostly to the whims of popular opinion.

Can Hoeppner do weekend fill-in work at a Florida parish? No one will say — until he accepts a request to do so and a media controversy ensues. Is Binzer actually going to become a pastor? That decision depends upon how much public pressure Cincinnati’s Archbishop Schnurr faces, and what he decides to do about it.

Without the actual imposition of penalties, and clear and direct expression of what they mean, each time a bishop like Binzer or Hoeppner takes a confirmation, celebrates a funeral, or shows up at an installation, the stage will be set for a public conflict between whatever diocesan bishop is inclined to welcome him and whatever Catholics find themselves aggrieved.

And without the imposition of penalties, or at least an explanation of whatever restrictions apply or do not apply to a particular bishop, every bishop who is removed from office or resigned under a cloud of suspicion will be regarded in the same light. Is the ecclesial situation of Hoeppner or Binzer exactly the same as that of Nienstedt, or Finn, or Piche, or Malone, or Cardinals Wuerl and Mahony, for that matter? 

It is, or will be in the eyes of the Catholic public, unless the Apostolic See takes the initiative to make distinctions.

Some priests who have seen that Hoeppner will celebrate a farewell Mass have raised another objection:

Some have noted that while priests can be — and often are —  summarily removed from ministry and publicly punished for allegations of abuse or negligence, bishops are allowed to retire with dignity and, effectively, set their own terms of departure.

There exists a disparity between the circumstances of a bishop’s removal and that of priests. Some clerics have told The Pillar they see that as one rule for bishops and another for everyone else; a selective application of the “zero tolerance” approach promised in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

After the sexual abuse crisis of the early 2000s, it became apparent that priest abusers in many dioceses were able to avoid punishment because of gaps in the Church’s penal law, and because of a general attitude among some bishops favoring a “pastoral” rather than “legal” approach to criminal behavior.

Since then, there have been layers of canonical reform, strengthening the process for handling the most grave cases, most notably 2001’s Sacromentorum sanctitatis tutela. More canonical reforms are expected in the near future — a new section of the Code of Canon Law on penal law expected to be promulgated in the coming months — but no amount of policy can ensure that bishops, both in Rome and in the U.S., have the will to apply the law to their brothers in the episcopate. 

As the norms of Come una madre amorevole show, there is ample scope to treat actions of the kind Bishop Hoeppner is accused of committing as crimes. Thanks to Vos estis, there is also now a working process for investigating allegations of such behavior. 

But the two documents have yet to be used together, such that episcopal misconduct is treated with the same canonical rigor, and the same kind of punishments, as have been adopted for priests in the last twenty years.

Until that happens, Catholics will continue to ask if bishops are indeed committed to holding themselves and one other to account.