Edward Pentin reporting from Rome
— Pope Francis is facing what is being described as the first crisis of his papacy: a Puerto Rican archbishop who is refusing to obey numerous Vatican requests that he resign.
Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Octavio Gonzalez Nieves, has been accused by the Vatican of an array of alleged serious offenses: protecting pedophile priests, abusing his power, promoting Puerto Rican independence from the U.S., and supporting a law that could grant same-sex couples living together hereditary rights and health benefits.
According to La Stampa, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s department for bishops, visited Gonzalez Nieves on December 15, when the archbishop denied the allegations. In a "tense meeting," Ouellet asked him to step down and to ask the Church for a new position elsewhere.
But Gonzalez Nieves says the accusations are politically motivated and has accused a cardinal and a former Puerto Rican governor of being behind the allegations. He has also put up a vigorous defense, writing an angry letter to Ouellet two months after their meeting that was leaked to the Puerto Rican press.
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"Injustices, persecutions, and defamations" should not be just causes for a bishop to resign, he wrote. He also questioned why, if the accusations are so grave, the Church would be happy with him finding another ecclesiastical position.
None of the accusations have been confirmed and Gonzalez Nieves has asked his flock to "pray for the truth to prevail." He has also been defended by non-Catholics. Protestant bishop Naphtali Rodriguez Marrero of San Juan issued a press release Thursday, defending him as an "extraordinary" pastoral leader, and adding that he, too, blames "political and religious opponents who do not share his views."
Forcing a bishop to resign is not without precedent, and usually it involves "grave reasons" concerning moral questions. A similar incident to this one occurred only last year, when Benedict XVI ordered Archbishop Robert Bezak of Trnava in Slovakia to resign.
Benedict was similarly quick to enforce the resignation of other bishops during his pontificate, notably Australian bishop Patrick Percival Power, who was told to resign last year for his liberal dissent from Church teaching.
The fact that Gonzalez Nieves is still Archbishop of San Juan could be partially due to delays caused by the papal transition.
Canon law states that the Vatican can legitimately enforce a resignation but with a number of qualifiers, according to American expert Fr. Pius Pietrzyk.
"The office of a diocesan bishop can be lost by 'privation' (canon 416) which means that a he can be deprived of his office, under certain conditions," Pietrzyk told Newsmax. "First, the bishop can only be judged by the Roman Pontiff himself (canon 1405)," he explained. "Second there must be a 'delict' — essentially a crime or wrongdoing under canon law — which must be sufficiently grave."
Being presented with such a crime or wrongdoing may be enough for the bishop in question to step down, but if he still refuses, a canonical procedure — essentially a trial — may then take place.
"I imagine the Holy See would go to very great lengths to avoid such a thing," Pietrzyk said.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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