14 April 2019

What Happens When Diocesan Hermits are Accused of Crimes?

[[Dear Sister, what happens to a diocesan hermit who commits a crime? Let's suppose it is a serious crime against another person. What does a diocese do in such a case? Can they just cut the hermit/ess loose or say they want nothing  to do with him/her? Are more canon laws needed to deal with such a case?]]

Unusual questions! Well, nonetheless, were such a thing to happen  there is a canonical process which can serve in such instances. Presuming the action is truly criminal and established in fact (for instance, the hermit openly admits to having done this or is taken to court and found guilty of this crime), and that not acting otherwise would result in scandal to the diocese, the diocese would probably ultimately take steps to dispense the hermit's vows. Such dispensation would release the hermit from the consecrated state of life and from the public rights and obligations associated with her profession and initiation into this state (her consecration). (This, by the way, does not change the fact that God has consecrated her, but it does dispense her from the stable state of life associated with consecration and thus too from being a religious and from the ways a religious may style him/herself.)

Remember, however, that a diocese cannot do this without established grounds. Additionally, the hermit has canonical rights to respond to accusations, to confront the accuser and supposed facts of the case, and to appeal decisions and processes, etc. "Canonical status" means "standing in law" and means a mutually binding relationship in law results when public vows are received by a legitimate superior in the name of the church. The hermit is commissioned to live eremitical life in the name of the universal church while legitimate superiors/the local church are more immediately responsible both to the hermit, to the universal church, and to the vocation itself to support the hermit in this. They cannot simply say they want nothing to do with the hermit when there are public vows binding in a mutual and public relationship. To do this would be both illegitimate and immoral --- a kind of betrayal and malfeasance on the part of the local church/ordinary toward both hermit and c 603 vocation per se. My own sense is that long before canonical disciplinary actions are initiated, the diocese (Vicar for religious or bishop) would contact the hermit to discuss the matter --- particularly if the accuser and accusations are at all credible.

If accusations are made that are not particularly credible however, I am not sure a diocese would even bother the hermit unless they are concerned for her wellbeing or believe she has already been troubled in some way by such accusations. In such an instance, while bypassing contacting the hermit, a diocese might well encourage an accuser to take civil action as part of establishing both their own credibility (or incredibility) as well as that of the  accusations.  In such a case it is likely the hermit or his/her delegate would be the one contacting the diocese (bishop/bishop's office, Vicar for Religious) to inform them that s/he has been served with some kind of legal warrant, suit, order of protection, etc.. At the same time the hermit's delegate would serve as the hermit's advocate with and for the diocese because s/he knows the hermit best and would be in the best position to ensure both the truth, the hermit's solitude and her well-being.

In any case, all of this is part of establishing the credibility of accusations and assuring the hermit is able to continue living his/her vocation with a minimum of disruption or existential angst. It is also a way the diocese itself, but especially the hermit's bishop and vicar (for Religious), can get additional detailed information on the hermit's life from folks who serve the diocese in this specific capacity and know the hermit intimately --- and who can thus support the hermit without unnecessarily calling him/her into the chancery for conversations beyond, perhaps, an initial pastoral conversation to inform him/her of the situation. (Please note that in some dioceses hermits have relatively close relationships with their bishops; the dynamics in such instances might well differ than in the case of larger (Arch)dioceses or those where new bishops have taken over for those who have previously known and worked with the diocesan hermit but who have died or moved on to a new office/diocese.)

Your questions have to do with actual crimes should those ever occur, but the more important and always-relevant dimension of my response underscores the ecclesial nature of the diocesan eremitical vocation and the mutual legal-pastoral covenantal relationship that obtains from public profession and consecration which are received or mediated by a legitimate superior acting in the Church's name. This exists in any case. The process referred to re dispensation of vows which is initiated by the superior rather than at the request of the hermit exists apart from actual crimes and may be used if the hermit is not living her vocation well or is in some way causing scandal.

In such cases, as I understand them, the hermit is given a chance to moderate or otherwise modify her behavior; if the behavior stems from external circumstances that are not entirely under her control a diocese will work with her to assist her to find a solution. Only when this proves impossible and the situation seems to be a continuing one rather than clearly temporary, or when the hermit refuses to work with the diocese or modify problematical behavior will a diocese act in a way which may (need to) lead to dispensation. Again, as I have said here any number of times, the diocesan eremitical vocation is understood to be a gift of God to the Church and world; both the diocese and the hermit are charged with honoring it appropriately and stand in mutual ecclesial relationship to allow God to empower this.