Hard lesson for the Vatican: Firing a bishop doesn't end the story

Rome -- In the space of a year, between May 2011 and May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI effectively fired two bishops in two very different parts of the world, and for very different reasons: William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia, for alleged doctrinal deviations, and Francesco Micciché of Trapani, Italy, amid reports of financial malfeasance.

Despite the contrasts, the two cases seem to have at least one common term: If anyone thought that simply removing the bishop would bring the story to an end, they obviously need to think again.

Morris, 68, who was deposed, among other things, for allegedly favoring women’s ordination, has become a folk hero in liberal Catholic circles. Today he enjoys a global profile well beyond what the bishop of a small outback diocese normally commands, and says he’s working on a book, described as “a reflection on my journey with regards to the Vatican over the past 10 years.”

If anything, Micciché’s case seems even less likely to go gently into that good night.

Trapani is located on the island of Sicily, historically a stronghold of the Italian mafia. Micciché, who had served as the bishop since 1998, and who turns 69 tomorrow, was removed in May following reports that almost $1.3 million had disappeared from two charitable foundations run by the diocese. Other allegations of irregularities later surfaced, including the sale of as many as fifty properties owned by the diocese to friends, at a tenth of their estimated value.

When concern first surfaced last year, Benedict XVI dispatched another Italian bishop, Domenico Mogavero, a senior figure in the Italian bishops’ conference, to investigate. Mogavero’s review lasted from June to December 2011, and finished with a report delivered directly to the pope. Micciché was removed May 19 on the charge of illicit “alienation of property,” a term in canon law for jeopardizing the financial position of his diocese beyond a certain limit without Vatican permission.

At the time, Micciché strenuously protested the move, in language strikingly similar to that used by Morris a year before.

“My superiors were unable or unwilling to understand what was going on in this diocese, leaving the clergy and especially the people of God at the mercy of petty slander,” Micciché said, describing his removal as “an extreme measure” which he neither agreed with nor understood.

The case has recently returned to the headlines, in connection to a corruption probe by civil prosecutors in Trapani. Specifically, prosecutors are interested in knowing more about the activities of a well-known Trapani priest who at one time was a close ally of Micciché, Fr. Ninni Treppiedi.

The two later had a falling out. Eventually Treppiedi was suspended, and he remains so today.

Among other things, prosecutors have filed a request through diplomatic channels for information about accounts Treppiedi may have held at the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called “Vatican Bank.”

Press reports have suggested that prosecutors suspect those accounts may have been used to launder money for the Sicilian mafia – including notorious mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro, a fugitive since 1993, who’s considered one of the ten most wanted criminals in the world.

The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, has denied those reports, saying the investigation “has nothing to do with mafia money-laundering” but is focused on “the administration of funds in the diocese.”

Lombardi also denied reports that the Vatican has refused to cooperate with the probe, saying that the request from Italian authorities arrived just one month ago, on May 9, and would be replied to “within the normal time.” He described as a “myth” the idea that the Vatican does not wish to cooperate with Italian investigations.

Observers believe the investigation may reveal further details about financial wheeling and dealing in Trapani, which Italian writer Giacomo Galeazzi recently described as “more like a real estate company than a diocese.”

In one recent report, Galeazzi outlined a surreal development last fall, when Micciché allegedly showed up at five in the morning outside a Trapani convent, with Italian police in tow, wanting to search for documents concerning the transfer of title for the convent, valued at $2.5 million, to Treppiedi. The sisters reportedly refused, and the standoff went on for an hour until firefighters showed up, at which point the sisters reportedly consented to the search, but only if Micciché left.

In the aftermath of the affair, Galeazzi reports, Micciché got a letter from the Vatican demanding to know how he could have allowed such a thing to happen.

Micciché has reportedly told both friends and Italian prosecutors that he’s the victim of a campaign of defamation by Treppiedi, though other analysts insist that most of the financial irregularities occurred while the two were still close.

There may be more revelations to come, as civil prosecutors follow the money trail.

As a footnote, fallout from both the Morris and the Micciché affairs may not be limited to bad press. It’s also striking that both prelates have raised due process concerns about church law, insisting that they were deposed on the basis of unfounded accusations and given inadequate opportunities to mount a defense.

In tandem with more than a decade of similar complaints from Catholic clergy amid the church’s sexual abuse scandals, all this may add to the pressure for stronger procedural guarantees for the accused in the penal section of the Code of Canon Law, which is presently undergoing revision by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Regardless of how inclined they may be to sympathy for either Morris or Micciché, some bishops may not be able to help thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

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