Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Continuing Saga of Fr. Despard: Canon Law Perspective

Fr. Matthew Despard’s current plight continues to be of great interest to the world. A follow-up article here describes parishioners’ reactions to the suspension of Fr. Despard’s faculties: many walked out of the Mass being said by the acting bishop, and many signed a petition demanding that Fr. Despard be reinstated.

Dr. Ed Peters has an interesting look at the situation from the canonical point of view (of course!). He notes that:

A priest’s removal from ministry could be effected under Canon 1722, a norm that authorizes such action against persons under certain circumstances (who knows whether those circumstances were satisfied in this case), and there is canonical provision, even preference, that ecclesiastical penalties be imposed or declared in a judicial (instead of administrative) penal process per Canons 1314 and 1341-1342.

The question is: what canonical crime could have been committed (not was committed, but could have been committed) by publishing the kind of book described above? Remember—against the backdrop of Canon 212 and its protection of the qualified right of Catholics to publish their opinions on matters impacting the welfare of the Church—that a canonical crime is being alleged here, not just the canonical equivalent of a tort (Canons 128 and 1491); that is, the priest is being treated as suspected of having violated a canonical provision to which a sanction is attached. That’s a very serious matter.

Dr. Peters says that of the four penal canons that could be called into play in this sitatuion, the two most likely candidates are:

Canon 1369, for perhaps the priest’s book gravely injured good morals [nb: not morale], expressed insults, or excited hatred or contempt against religion or the Church.

Canon 1373, for perhaps the priest’s book excited animosity or hatred against ecclesiastical authority on account of its governance acts [or lack thereof?] or provoked the faithful to disobey ecclesiastical authority.

Dr. Peters does not mention the fact that the prelate who is taking this canonical action against Fr. Despard is an acting bishop. In my diocese, when we had an “acting bishop”, or Apostolic Administrator, some of us were under the impression that there were limits to what actions could be taken by such an administrator, according to Canon Law (you can begin reading some of the applicable canons here). There are some very specific limitation that don’t apply here, but I’m not sure whether or not canons fully address the general concept of not taking action that would have a lasting effect on the diocese and cause problems for the incoming bishop. In particular, I’m thinking of this canon (my emphases):

Can. 428 §1 While the see is vacant, no innovation is to be made.
§2 Those who have the interim governance of the diocese are forbidden to do anything which could in any way prejudice the rights of the diocese or of the Bishop…

 At any rate, the previous bishop of Fr. Despard’s diocese had stated that Fr. Despard would not be suspended, but the acting bishop has decided otherwise. Whether or not that action is within his rights as an acting bishop is probably a moot point, since he’s doing it regardless.

Still, here’s one other note from Dr. Peters, which I find quite an interesting thought:

I might mention, though, one other penal canon possibly relevant in this matter. Canon 1389 threatens with sanctions those who abuse office in the Church. Invoking, on frivolous grounds, a formal penal process against a priest might qualify as abuse of ecclesiastical office

Regardless of canon law, the double standard concerning the accusation of priestly crimes continues, as is noted by this blog post which tells us:

The Scottish homosexual crisis continues unabated as Fr. Matthew Despard is suspended, while admitted pervert priest Paul Milarvie is a priest in "good standing" and even in the local curia. 

Follow the link in the quote to learn more about Fr. Milarvie’s past shenanigans…and the fact that despite admissions of homosexual behavior, his faculties have never been suspended.

Personally, I’m glad that Fr. Despard wrote his book. He’s paying the price, and I seriously doubt he will find justice, but if he is telling the truth, and following his conscience in bringing the situation to light, then God will surely judge him favorably. That’s what counts.


  1. there is another canon 1483?? that underscores that a priest has a right to seek a resolution prior t the use of the 1722 canon; my brief reviews and the information in the Daily Record seem to show that Fr. Despard approached the chancery a number of times, but was rebuffed.

    1. He stood up every appointment made at the chancery

    2. presumably "anonymous" was present at the chancery, and an eye witness. Extraordinary!!!!!!

  2. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Please be courteous and concise.