Pope fires another bishop

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Pope Benedict XVI today added another name to the growing list of Catholic bishops fired on his watch, removing Archbishop Róbert Bezák of Trnava, Slovakia, from office.

A 52-year-old member of the Redemptorist order, Bezák had served as archbishop of Trnava, considered the cradle of Catholicism in Slovakia, since 2009.

Though a number of bishops have resigned under various forms of pressure, today’s announcement marks the fourth time in just the last year that Pope Benedict XVI has formally removed a prelate from office.

Those other cases are:

  • Bishop Jean-Claude Makaya Loembe of Pointe-Noire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in March 2011

  • Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia, in May 2011;

  • Bishop Francesco Micciché of Trapani, Italy, in May 2012.

Though the Vatican generally does not offer any official explanations, the basis for removal with both Makaya and Micciché was widely believed to be alleged mismanagement in their dioceses, including accusations of corruption and financial impropriety.

Morris, on the other hand, was charged with doctrinal deviations, including support for women priests.

Likewise, today’s terse one-sentence statement on the removal of Bezák did not offer any basis for the move. It’s been clear for some time, however, that Rome had its eye on the Trnava archbishop.

In January, the Vatican named Czech Bishop Jan Baxant, of the Litom??ice diocese, as its apostolic visitor in Trnava. That review triggered rumors of a possible change in leadership, since Baxant apparently asked other bishops in Slovakia how they would react if Bezák were removed.

According to press sources in Slovakia, there have been rumors of mishandling of large sums of money in the Trnava archdiocese in violation of church law, dating to the twenty-year period during which Archbishop Ján Sokol, now 78, governed the Trnava archdiocese, from 1989 to 2009.

Observers say there was a feeling in some quarters that Bezák had been too critical of Sokol’s administration, creating a rift compounded by perceptions of an ideological divide. Sokol is generally seen as a deeply conservative and traditional figure, while Bezák is perceived as more modern and moderate.

Some observers reportedly feared a split in the Slovakian church, a community of four million representing three-quarters of the country’s population.

According to Slovakian journalist Andrej Matisak, Bezák spoke briefly about his situation during yesterday’s Sunday Mass in Trnava, saying only that he had been instructed not to speak to the media, that he had been given no reason for his dismissal, and that he was supposed to leave Trnava.

Matisak said it’s believed that Bezák had been asked to resign voluntarily and had refused.

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