The Canonical Fate of Raymond Lahey

In a very rare move, the Holy See has decreed that Raymond Leahy, disgraced former bishop of the Diocese of Anitiginosh, Nova Scotia, has been dismissed from the clerical state. The brief press release from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops lays out clearly and succinctly the canonical effects that this administrative action carries:

According to Canon 292 of the Code of Canon Law, the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has the following effects: loss of the rights and duties attached to the clerical state, except for the obligation of celibacy; prohibition of the exercise of any ministry, except as provided for by Canon 976 of the Code of Canon Law in those cases involving danger of death; loss of all offices and functions and of all delegated power, as well as prohibition of the use of clerical attire. Raymond Lahey has accepted the Decree of Dismissal, which also requires him to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in reparation for the harm and the scandal he has caused, and for the sanctification of clergy.

This is, thankfully, a very rare circumstance indeed that the Church is dealing with: a bishop found guilty of a grave public crime in both the civil-criminal and canonical spheres of jurisdiction. While we are all too familiar with similarly distasteful examples involving priests, when the offender is of episcopal rank the situation is exceedingly delicate for the Church, although not for the reasons that the average person, jaded by the decades of cover-ups and paper shuffling, would expect. The greatest fear with a disgraced bishop is that, if so inclined, he could “go rogue” and begin ordaining men as priests and even bishops without approval, creating a potentially messy schismatic situation with potentially long-lasting ramifications. Such ordinations outside the communion with the Bishop of Rome would of course be gravely illicit, and would bring immediate ecclesiastical penalties upon all involved. But, at the end of the day, they would most likely still be valid ordinations.

So I find it a fitting arrangement that the decree for Lahey has stripped him of all privileges of his presbyteral and episcopal state, but has re-iterated the obligations he assumed at his own ordination: to live celibately, to observe perfect and perpetual continence, and to pray faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours, in his case with the special intention of reparation for his failings and their impact on the entire community. It has a very old-fashioned ring to it, but he really has been directed to live out his days in prayer and penance. And I for one cannot see a better arrangement the Church could have made in this sad case.

Bishops and their presbyters

Priests don’t work for the diocesan bishop; they work for the diocese. 

That, at least, was the principal takeaway from the lecture delivered by Rev. Michael Joyce, CM, JCD, at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. The president of the CLSA was making his customary annual visit to “the other” of North America’s two schools of canon law, and students and faculty filled the back rows of the otherwise-empty amphitheater for the talk. The topic was an interesting one: the employer-employee relationship of the diocesan bishop and his priests seems at first glance to be obvious, and civil law certainly would like to use that understanding, for purposes of both taxation and — more critically — liability and prosecutorial matters. 

Building off canon 384, Fr. Joyce rightly spoke of the relationship between bishop and presbyterate as a communio, a communion of mutual service to the particular church — the diocese — with all that is entailed in such ministry. But the nature of priestly ministry is not equatable with any secular job, nor with any civil corporate management structure, despite outside viewers’ incompletely-informed impressions to the contrary.

Ultimately, then, the bishop has a duty to ensure that the priests of his diocese have what they need to live and carry out their ordained service to the People of God in that place (remuneration), as well as a sort of authoritative yet fraternal exhortative guidance. But this canonical relationship cannot be extended to considering the bishop responsible in civil jurisdictions for the criminal acts of a priest. The priest alone is responsible for his own moral and criminal actions, both before God and before systems of human justice.

While I am relatively comfortable accepting this conclusion on its face, it raises two questions in my mind that I wish I had been impertinent enough to raise with Fr. Joyce. On the one hand, such a position seems to lead to bishops quickly ‘washing their hands’ of problematic clerics, cutting them loose to fend for themselves; this is difficult to reconcile with the  ‘peculiar solicitude’ required of bishops toward their clerics. And in the other direction, in far too many cases, bishops (and their curial officials) have involved themselves in trying to ‘manage’ the problems caused by criminal priests, and thus have inextricably involved themselves in the criminal culpability as well.