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Questions of justice


In the last few weeks I have been asked a number of questions including ‘can the Pope sack a bishop?’ This question forced me to reflect on what it really meant.

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To ‘sack’ is often used in the vernacular to mean ‘remove from employment’, ‘to dismiss’ or ‘to make redundant’.

In relation to the situation of Archbishop Wilson, there are two elements, a civil one and an ecclesiastical one. In the civil sphere a person removed from employment totally loses his position and no longer remains a member of the organisation that employed him.

A bishop, as the pastor of a diocese, has a role mapped out in canon law, in other Church laws and by custom and practice. He is also a priest chosen and ordained to be a pastor of a diocese. His ordination is for life. While a bishop can be removed from his office as bishop and is thus relieved of all responsibilities for his diocese, he remains a bishop.

If a bishop is charged in a civil forum and faces court therein, it is usual for the ecclesiastical superiors to await the outcome of the civil court before intervention. While the court case is in progress the bishop may be asked or even required to stand aside from his responsibilities as pastor of a diocese. Formal removal is delayed until the court case is final. A bishop, as any citizen, has the civil law right to have justice take its course and canon law, as a general rule, allows for that before an intervention by the Pope.

To return to the original question, ‘can the Pope sack a bishop?’ The answer is ‘yes’ but it must be remembered that the vernacular ‘sack’ refers to formal removal of the responsibilities of being a pastor in a diocese. The man remains a bishop. The Pope does not sack on impulse. He would respect the outcome of a civil court. If there was no such court case, he would undertake an investigative process in accord with canon law.

The next question was in relation to Archbishop Wilson’s situation. The Pope has already intervened after Archbishop Wilson was found guilty in a magistrate’s court. Pope Francis acted decisively by relieving Archbishop Wilson of his responsibilities and duties as Archbishop of Adelaide and appointing Bishop Greg O’Kelly as Apostolic Administrator while the Archbishop’s appeal is pending. The Pope recognises the civil right and the natural justice due the Archbishop. He has ensured that the pastoral needs of the faithful in the Archdiocese are being cared for as well as is possible in the situation.

The final question concerned media. Much has been written about individuals and groups demanding that the Pope ‘sack’ Archbishop Wilson. Any individual has a right to express an opinion based on personal experience and/or on factual evidence and make that opinion known to the Pope. A head of government should be slow to make a demand of the Pope as he is not only head of the Catholic Church but is also head of government in the Vatican State. Such a request could well be interpreted as interference in the affairs of state.

No matter the wrong, justice must be done and seen to be done both for victims and the accused. May peace and forgiveness be the hallmark of all on the road to justice.

Sr Maria Casey is a canon lawyer from Sydney.


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