Pope Fires Bishop-Implications for Priest Abuse Cases

Pope Benedict XVI has taken the unusual step of removing a bishop in Slovakia. According to the Washington Post, “On Monday, the Vatican said Benedict had “relieved from pastoral care” Bishop Robert Bezak of Trnava, Slovakia.” Now, the words in italics (placed there by the Washington Post editors) is significant. Normally, bishops who are problematic are usually told or encouraged to resign. They aren’t forcibly removed from their episcopal office. This usually involves mismanagement of the particular diocese and rarely, if ever, for issues of sexual abuse. For instance, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned but was not forced to resign or fired by Pope John Paul II. The Post article goes on to discuss whether the Pope might fire bishops who refuse to remove priests accused of sexual abuse or covered up for priests who abused children.
The more important point is this-the Pope can and indeed has in this instance, demonstrated powers normally reserved to an employer in the secular world. In other words, the Pope has shown that he enjoys supervisory as well as hiring and firing authority over bishops. In priest abuse lawsuits that name the Pope or a Vatican department as a defendant, the Church lawyer in this country Jeffrey Lena has argued successfully that the Pope has no jurisdictional control over the US bishops. Thus far, courts have tended to agree with Lena. This new incident may demonstrate to US courts that the Pope does indeed have and can exercise what is akin to employer control over an employee. I’m sure that Lena and other Church lawyers are busy trying to figure out a way to “spin” this latest development and preserve the illusion that bishops are autonomous in their own dioceses. However, the Pope’s latest actions in removing the Slovak bishop belie this argument.