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Complaints against an English priest named to become a bishop also triggered a Vos estis lux mundi investigation into his own diocesan bishop, who was accused of failing to handle the allegations appropriately. 

Canon Christopher Whitehead and Bishop Declan Lang

Canon Christopher Whitehead of the Diocese of Clifton has returned to parish ministry, the diocese announced in a brief statement on March 22, after a preliminary investigation into allegations raised against him determined there was no cause to initiate a full canonical proceeding.

But while the priest has now returned to parish ministry, the circumstances which led to his canceled episcopal promotion caused a major headache for multiple Vatican departments, and led to a Vatican-ordered investigation into Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, who resigned weeks after the investigation began.

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The Vatican announced Dec. 15, 2023 that Whitehead had been selected by Pope Francis to become the next Bishop of the Diocese of Plymouth, with his episcopal consecration scheduled for Feb. 22 of this year.

But the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales announced Feb. 1 that the episcopal ordination would no longer take place, and that a “canonical process” related to Whitehead had been initiated instead. 

The priest “stepped back from active ministry” during that process, the bishops’ conference said.

While the Clifton diocese announced Whitehead’s return to parish ministry last week, neither it nor the Plymouth diocese has offered any additional details about “the allegations,” and a spokesman for the chancery in Clifton declined to comment further. 

But sources close to the Dicastery for Bishops in Rome have told The Pillar that the allegations against Whitehead concerned improper “physical contact,” and that they had been raised by two seminarians.

One source told The Pillar that the allegations were “not recent” and had been made some time prior to the decision to nominate Whitehead as Bishop of Plymouth. 

The source also told The Pillar that the allegations had not been properly investigated at the time they were made, and no note of the allegations had been recorded in Whitehead’s diocesan personnel file, which was sent to Rome during his consideration for episcopal office. 

“So far as [the dicastery] knew, it never happened,” the source told The Pillar.

Instead, the accusations were reportedly raised again, directly to the dicastery, after the December announcement of Whitehead’s pending episcopal consecration, triggering an urgent review and the eventual cancellation of Whitehead’s installation as bishop.

Another senior Church official, close to the Secretariat of State in Rome, confirmed to The Pillar that the Vatican had been unaware of the past allegations at the time of Whitehead’s nomination, and that Roman officials were “surprised and obviously furious” to only learn of them after the December announcement.

The source close to the Secretariat of State told The Pillar that the secretariat and the Dicastery for Bishops were especially concerned to learn that the allegations had not been properly investigated by the Diocese of Clifton when they were first raised, with the source characterizing the diocese’s lack of formal action as “exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to know you just can’t do.”  

“The allegations themselves were one thing, which could and should have been properly handled and — as we’ve seen — didn’t necessarily need to result in some terrible finding,” the official said. “But what you don’t do is pretend they never happened, just because it would all be a bit awkward for people.”

“It made everyone look ridiculous,” the source clarified. 

The same source also told The Pillar that, because the allegations were not investigated when they were first made, and also not included in the diocesan files on Canon Whitehead sent to Rome, the Vatican instructed an investigation into Bishop Declan Lang of the Clifton diocese, under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 papal motu proprio issued in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

Sources said the investigation was ordered in February, at the same time that Whitehead’s episcopal consecration was canceled, and “did not take long.” 

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Lang, who was installed as the Bishop of Clifton in 2001, resigned from office on March 14, at the age of 73, two years before the mandatory retirement age of 75.

The Holy See gave no reason when Lang’s resignation was announced. 

A source close to the Dicastery for Bishops described Lang’s departure from office as “linked” to the Vos estis investigation but “not a one-to-one overlap,” pointing out that the bishop had been dealing with ongoing health issues for several years.

The Pillar asked the Clifton diocese for comment on the nature of the allegations against Canon Whitehead, the Vos estis investigation, and timing and reason for Bishop Lang’s resignation. 

A spokesman said that the diocese could not comment any further beyond the statements it had previously released publicly.

No announcement from the Vatican has been made about when a new bishop will be named for the Diocese of Plymouth.

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