California Bishop Cantu under Vatican 'Vos estis' investigation

CNA 50ef0186e7bbb 16563 1 Bishop Oscar Cantu. | Rendon Photography & Fine Art, Courtesy of Archdiocese of San Antonio.

The Vatican's Congregation for Bishops has ordered an investigation into Bishop Oscar Cantu's handling of allegations of clerical sexual abuse and misconduct. The investigation is being carried out under the provisions of Vos estis lux mundi, Pope Francis' 2019 law for holding bishops accountable in the handling of sexual abuse cases.

Senior sources in the Vatican told CNA that the investigation was ordered by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, in October and that the allegations concern Cantu's handling of abuse and misconduct cases in his former diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Cantu is now Bishop of San Jose, California.

One senior official in the Vatican congregation, who spoke to CNA on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential, said that Pope Francis has adopted a "zero tolerance" policy with regard to American bishops' handling of clerical sexual misconduct.

"The Holy Father is absolutely firm that cases of abuse will not be tolerated. He is also firm that bishops must treat all of these cases with complete seriousness," the official said. 

The official went on to note that while the recently published report on the career of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been met with criticism in some media quarters, it would be wrong to assume no lessons have been learned from McCarrick's case.

"The report on Theodore McCarrick was very long: long as a report and long in making the report," he said. "The idea that past failings have not been identified and learned from is simply not true – work is being done, the new process is being applied."

The investigation into Bishop Cantu concerns alleged actions or inactions in cases of clerical sexual misconduct in the Diocese of Las Cruces, where Cantu served as bishop from 2013 to 2018. 

Vatican officials confirmed to CNA that the investigation is being carried out under the terms of Article 1, §1, b of Vos estis, which concerns "actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious" in cases of sexual abuse.

A second Vatican official emphasized to CNA that Vos estis investigations are preliminary, and that no formal charges have been brought as yet.

"This is not a trial – not a trial," he stressed. "The bishop has every presumption of innocence and remains in office, as is proper. The process will continue and develop as is appropriate."

Both officials declined to comment on the specific accusations against Cantu, or whether they concern any clergy still in ministry.

Both officials told CNA the investigation is being overseen by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. Vos estis ordinarily foresees that the local metropolitan archbishop, in this case Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe. 

It is not clear why Olmsted was preferred to Wester; neither Vatican official commented to CNA on the reasons for the decision, but  they confirmed Olmsted had been informed of the decision in late October via the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C.

In response to questions regarding the investigation and Olmsted's role in it, the Diocese of Phoenix told CNA it did "not have any information to share on this matter."

A spokesperson for the Diocese of San Jose told CNA Monday evening that "Bishop Cantu has not been notified of any inquiry regarding this matter."

Vos estis lux mundi offers latitude for Vatican offices to decide the stage at which a bishop under investigation is notified of that fact. A source close to the investigation into Cantu told CNA that the bishop is not expected to be formally notified in this case until the conclusion of the preliminary investigation, at which time Cantu will be permitted to offer a defense of allegations against him.

The Diocese of Las Cruces has faced multiple accusations of sexual abuse against clergy, dating back decades. 

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In February 2019, after Cantu had left the diocese, it ordered the public release of thousands of pages of diocesan records concerning 28 priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Also in February last year, the diocese announced that chancery officials had voluntarily handed over diocesan personnel files to the New Mexico Attorney General, and that they had discovered that an additional 13 priests were the subject of credible accusations in other dioceses. 

The Diocese of Las Cruces was erected in 1982; many of the priests who have served in the diocese were sent there on temporary or permanent transfer from other U.S. dioceses, or by religious orders.

The diocese maintains an updated list of clergy credibly accused of abuse and, as recently as August, Bishop Peter Baldacchino acted to remove faculties from a retired priest over historical accusations of abuse dating back to the 1990s.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Las Cruces declined to comment on the matter.

Cantu, 53, became a bishop in 2008, when he was appointed an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. He became Bishop of Las Cruces in 2013, and was coadjutor bishop of San Jose in 2018. He formally took the reins of that diocese in May 2019. Cantu, a native of Houston, was ordained a priest of the Houston archdiocese in 1994.

CNA requested comment on the investigation from the Apostolic Nunciature to the United States, but did not receive a response by deadline.

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Bishops Michael Hoeppner of Crookston and Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn are also under Vos estis lux mundi Vatican investigations.

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