Further Canonical Observations on Cardinal O’Brien

Cardinal O’Brien’s situation continues to develop and to raise more questions.

News that his resignation, submitted late last year, has been accepted by Rome and that he will voluntarily remove himself from the conclave confirms the grave seriousness of the allegations made against him.

The speed with which he has departed from office and taken himself out of the conclave (it is unclear as yet whether he will simply not attend or if he is resigning from the College) is remarkable, as is the adherence thus far to canonical process. As was mentioned in an earlier post, the complaint was made privately, through the proper channels, directly to the Holy See and there was no conflation of civil and canonical process, yielding a very quick result indeed.

This contrasts with the increasingly ugly situation in Los Angeles involving the former Archbishop, Cardinal Mahoney, who shielded priests who violated canon 1395 §2 from exposure. Since the release, by his successor Archbishop Gomez, of curial documents showing the scale of his involvement, Cardinal Mahoney has engaged in a very ugly, very public exchange with Archbishop Gomez, who has issued canonically empty (see c.357 §2) decree removing Mahoney from ‘public ministry’. Members of the Archdiocese have organised a petition to bar Mahoney from the conclave while he continues to assert his right to attend and insists he will travel to Rome.

Both situations are extremly regrettable and do horrific damage to the Church and the faith of those involved.

In these situations the Church is often criticized for being insitutional, slow moving and unable to react. Yet, as the situation around Cardinal O’Brien has shown, the truth is that the canonical process can actually proceed remarkably swiftly if used properly. Canon law is the oldest complete legal system in current use, dating back, depending on where you distinguish it from Roman law, at least 1200 years. Frustration, confusion and acrimony usually arrises when the process is ignored or improperly applied, as has happened in Los Angeles.

Notes on the unpleasantness with Cardinal O’Brien

The are few things more dispiriting to members and friends than another round of allegations of impropriety against the clergy.

Suffice to say that of course we all deplore those instances which have come to light, have witnessed the tragic results for the victims, seen the unfair collateral burden of suspicion placed on the majority of loyal servants of the people of God and winced at the further erosion of Mother Church’s due respect to preach the Gospel.

The recent complaints against Cardinal O’Brien are of course totally unproven so far and we must assume the best of a man who has proven a outspoken champion of the truth in his current office.

However, since the matter will no doubt remain in the secular media, we would like to make some canonical observations for the clarification of members.

As far as we can tell, there has been no attempt by the three priests filing the complaints to apply for civil redress. It’s seems that through a “high ranking official” at the archdiocese, whom I would presume to be the judicial vicar, they have applied their case directly to the Papal Nuncio.

Fr. Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, has confirmed that the Holy Father is treating the matter himself.

This would be the appropriate and canonically correct form to take if the complaint concerns a serious delict reserved under canon law to the Holy See. Of particular seriousness is that some of the alleged actions took place with Cardinal O’Brien acting as spiritual director. This is an especially privileged relationship in canon law, not equal to that of the confessional but closely guarded in law and to be held in the highest respect.

Also to be noted is that the complaint was submitted before the Pope announced his intention to resign and without any publicity. It seems that those making the complaint have only become public out of concern that the matter would be dropped during the Sede Vacante.

Very little, if anything, can be said with certainty at this point but what is for sure is that Cardinal O’Brien enjoys the canonical right to a good reputation, not to be impugned without full canonical process. We intend to fully respect this and hope that the matter will be resolved swiftly, with proper attention to the norm of law and due respect for the rights of all parties.