A New Day Dawning for Retired Bishops

COMMENTARY: Will Los Angeles revisit the Cardinal Mahony file in light of Bishop Bambera’s action in Scranton?

Cardinal Roger Mahony arrives for a vespers celebration in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 6, 2013.
Cardinal Roger Mahony arrives for a vespers celebration in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 6, 2013. (photo: AP photo/Gregorio Borgia)

In the maelstrom of news on sexual abuse, it may not be immediately noted for the significant step that it is, but the decision of Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to “permanently restrict” his predecessor, Bishop James Timlin, “from representing the Diocese of Scranton at all public events, liturgical or otherwise,” will have repercussions, ones that might echo loudly on the West Coast.

After the Pennsylvania grand jury report, some particularly egregious cases that happened on Bishop Timlin’s watch (1984 to 2003) came to light, including one of a priest who impregnated a teenage girl and then paid for an abortion. The priest resigned in 1986, but then was returned to ministry in 1987, with Bishop Timlin advocating for him. The priest remained in ministry until 2002, when he was removed.

While Bishop Bambera noted that “it is unfair to judge past actions against present-day standards,” he applied the maximum restriction a bishop can apply to his retired predecessor, namely to restrict his ability to “represent” the diocese. Any further restriction of a bishop’s ministry can only be taken by the Vatican; Bishop Bambera has referred the Bishop Timlin case to the Congregation for Bishops to see if any further action should be taken.

Given that Bishop Timlin has been retired for 15 years, it is unlikely that any further sanction would be imposed, as he has no current ecclesiastical authority or assignment.

Almost all of Bishop Timlin’s service as bishop predated the “Dallas Charter” of 2002. It is not suggested that, after the passing of the charter, he did not abide by it. However, Bishop Bambera’s action raises the question: Should bishops who served before the Dallas Charter be held, in effect, to its standards, even though the law of the Church did not require them to act as it does now? A broader argument could be made that canon law included adequate tools even then to punish priests, and the failure to do so was a significant failure in episcopal governance; a failure significant enough to justify action even all these years later.

There is a growing consensus in Pennsylvania that there should be some sanctions for the former bishops who served during the period of the grand jury report, 1947-2017.

The Diocese of Harrisburg has decided to remove the names of former bishops from all diocesan buildings, going back to 1947.

In Pittsburgh, the name of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, has been removed from a school, with his agreement.

In Baltimore, plans to name a school after Cardinal William Keeler, the bishop of Harrisburg from 1984 to 1989, have been canceled.

But Bishop Timlin’s sanctions are the most serious to date and will have the widest repercussions. There are more than a few retired bishops whose actions pre-Dallas Charter would be found wanting. Should their ministries be restricted?

Which brings us back to Scranton, where earlier this year that very issue came to the fore. The diocese marked its 150th anniversary in March and petitioned Pope Francis to send a papal legate for the occasion. The Holy See agreed, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, was appointed to represent the Holy Father. Given his severely compromised history on sexual abuse, several voices were raised against the appointment, expressing the view that Cardinal Mahony’s presence would not ennoble the festivities but, rather, serve as an embarrassment.

Bishop Bambera took note, the apostolic nuncio was consulted, and in short order, Cardinal Mahony announced that he had a previously overlooked scheduling conflict. The diocesan website was quickly scrubbed of the original announcement of the retired cardinal’s appointment.

All of this took place exactly five years after Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles attempted to do to Cardinal Mahony what Bishop Bambera just did to Bishop Timlin.

When records of sexual abuse were released in Los Angeles in January 2013, revealing that Cardinal Mahony had sought to protect priests from criminal prosecution, Archbishop Gomez announced that the cardinal would “no longer have any administrative or public duties.”

Cardinal Mahony protested strongly that he had been wronged by his successor, and it was noted that Archbishop Gomez did not have the authority to sanction a cardinal. Cardinal Mahony kept up his public profile in retirement, even concelebrating with Archbishop Gomez at high profile events. He was obviously regarded sufficiently well in Rome that Pope Francis considered him worthy of an appointment as a papal legate nine months ago. 

Would it be the same today? Standards are shifting.

In the case of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, after the Massachusetts attorney general concluded his investigation with no charges against Cardinal Law or the archdiocese, St. John Paul II appointed him to the position of archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore, a largely honorific post in Rome given to retired cardinals. Today that would be unthinkable.

If the late Cardinal Keeler is not eligible for a school to be named after him, a living cardinal with a compromised record would not be eligible to be appointed sacristan at the local cathedral, let alone a Roman sinecure.

Indeed, it was widely expected that Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia would receive a Roman position after his retirement in 2011. I heard as much from several knowledgeable sources on background. But when the Philadelphia grand jury reported in 2010 and found fault with his management, even after Dallas, that quickly became a non-starter.

So will Los Angeles revisit the Mahony file in light of Scranton? In a post-McCarrick age, when it is possible to resign entirely from the College of Cardinals, the old rules may no longer apply. A new era may be dawning for those bishops living their retirement years.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

Editors' Note: The article originally stated that the restrictions placed on Cardinal Mahony were lifted due to the Vatican's involvement. That was incorrect and has been amended.