19Feb Bishop Resigns – Pope Francis backs down in dispute with Nigerian priests

Francis backs down in dispute with Nigerian priests, accepts bishop’s resignation

by Joshua J. McElwee


Pope Francis has removed a Nigerian bishop whose 2012 appointment sparked years of protest from the diocese’s priests, backing down from a confrontation eight months after threatening to suspend the priests should they continue to agitate.

In a short note Feb. 19, the Vatican said the pontiff had accepted the resignation of Bishop Peter Okpaleke, head of the southern Nigerian diocese of Ahiara, and put neighboring Umuahia Bishop Lucius Ugorji in charge as apostolic administrator.

Okpaleke was appointed to his post by Pope Benedict XVI but was never able to take possession of the diocese because of the widespread nature of the protests. Francis wrote to the priests of the diocese last June, giving them 30 days to accept their bishop or be suspended from ministry.

The priests had complained that Okpaleke was not from Mbaise, the region surrounding their diocese. They said it is unfair that there is no Catholic bishop in Nigeria originally from their region, long known as one of the country’s most Catholic areas.

Francis’ removal of Okpaleke represents the second notable about-face the pontiff has made regarding a local bishop in three weeks, following his Jan. 30 decision to send Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate accusations against Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid.

The pope had previously called allegations that Barros was witness as a priest in the 1980s and 90s to sexual abuse by Fr. Fernando Karadima “calumny” and said there was no evidence against the prelate.

In a June 9 letter to the priests of the Ahiara diocese, Francis told them “whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the church.”

The pontiff then ordered every priest of the diocese, including those living elsewhere in the country or even abroad, to write him a letter apologizing for the protest and asking his forgiveness.

“Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office,” Francis told the priests then.

In a statement Feb. 19, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples said 200 priests of the Ahiara diocese had written to Francis to apologize but that others “pointed out their psychological difficulty in collaborating with the Bishop after years of conflict.”

The congregation, which holds competence over dioceses in Nigeria, said the pope “decided not to proceed with the canonical sanctions” against the priests who did not apologize.

The statement said the dicastery “urged every priest to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ and expressed hope that in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a Bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

The Fides news agency, an outlet of the Vatican congregation, also published Feb. 19 a pastoral letter promulgated by Okpaleke Feb. 14, in which he announces his resignation from the Ahiara diocese.

“I am convinced … that my remaining the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese is no longer beneficial to the Church,” the prelate states in the letter. “I do not think that my apostolate in a diocese where some of the priests and lay faithful are ill disposed to have me in their midst would be effective.”

“I invite any dissenting priests to re-examine their initial motivations for becoming priests in the Catholic Church,” he continues. “Repentance and reconciliation are very urgent!”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

9 Responses

  1. Mary Vallely

    It might seem that Pope Francis is losing face or has been shamed in some way in having changed his mind on this issue. However, isn’t it perfectly right and indeed healthy to change one’s mind in the light of new information? The days of issuing ultimatums are surely over. We must keep up the momentum in raising awareness of all injustices and in listening to each other with respect but with openness to changing our views.
    I have only been dipping in now and again into threads on this site and find it interesting to see how differences can create tensions and possible misunderstandings at times but the views expressed stem from a deep passionate desire for justice and as the ad says, “It’s good to talk.” I do sincerely believe however that those who have been gifted with the joy and privilege of parenthood have a deeper understanding of how egregious is the crime of child abuse.
    I wonder what human person the Pope confides in – he is close to God, of that I have no doubt – and whether he sometimes wishes he had a ‘significant other’ to share his thoughts and concerns and to be challenged in his thinking. We have to continue to keep him in our prayers. It’s an awful, awful burden of responsibility and such a lonely position to be in, God love him.

  2. Joe O'Leary

    Parents of course have a deeper understanding of this. However, our parents’ generation did not do a good job in protecting their children from brutal punishment and bullying from teachers.

    Here is a piquant anecdote: A young girl in the Irish countryside in the 1920s is approached by a neighbour, a flasher (“indecent exposure” is I suppose the term that would be used then), and runs away. She tells her parents and they advise her stay away from that man and never go down that dark road, etc. Then one of her parents adds, ” ‘Tis a wonder he didn’t give you a sixpence!”

    Freud tells of a lady accosted by a flasher in the Prater, who deflates the situation by saying, “My good man, won’t you catch a cold!”

    Note the role of humour in both incidents.

    Hushing things up was a huge activity in the past, and to some extent it could have defanged potentially toxic situations. Today everyone is encouraged to see themselves as victims, survivors, walking wounded, etc.

    I checked the definition of “indecent exposure” and again discovered the relativity of all such concepts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indecent_exposure

    The Bible defines a male as “one that pisseth against the wall” (1 Samuel 25:22; 1 Kings 16:11; 2 Kings 9:8)– in Paris, London, and Dublin today there’s many a man would like that definition to be reinstored, given the scarcity or expense of public conveniences.

  3. mjt

    Mary Vallely`s “God love him” @ 1 is a loving hug, and as one who once was the happy recipient of one of Mary`s hugs, I hope it does the pope as much good as it did me! But as for her idea that you need to be a parent especially to know how evil abuse is, I can`t agree -I think you just need to be human, you just need once to have been a child.
    And speaking of abuse, I`d like to squeeze in a personal footnote here that the worst offenders, in my experience, in the CBS school I attended as a pupil, were not the Christian Brothers, but the married lay staff, who should have been a whole lot wiser and kinder, but who almost to a man appeared not only to detest boys and to enjoy punishing us physically, but to disbelieve even in the possibility of educating us, to the point of making me wonder many years afterwards why they were in the teaching profession in the first place, or why they were allowed to be in it by the political authorities and by parents. If it were now of course, there would be street protests, and social media and legal campaigns about the levels of violence and psychological nastiness used against us. It just makes me think that seers like Mary will be vindicated in years to come in relation to her various concerns pursued here.
    Joe O`Leary on this site just recently mentioned the targets created by James Joyce 100 years ago, all now quite slavishly followed by every would-be critic of the church, but if he were alive now, I`d bet his target wouldn`t be the church, but any of the dehumanising powers we have to struggle with as we grow up: nowadays, I believe, the major deforming powers morally and spiritually do not come from our church but from images of false ideals implanted by the media and by a political establishment at least partially in control of it.

  4. Joe O'Leary

    A sample of Joyce’s anticlericalism, which can still make us feel uncomfortable:

    “Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost. That’s in their theology or the priest won’t give the poor woman the confession, the absolution. Increase and multiply. Did you ever hear such an idea? Eat you out of house and home. No families themselves to feed. Living on the fat of the land. Their butteries and larders. I’d like to see them do the black fast Yom Kippur. Crossbuns. One meal and a collation for fear he’d collapse on the altar. A housekeeper of one of those fellows if you could pick it out of her. Never pick it out of her. Like getting L. s. d. out of him. Does himself well. No guests. All for number one. Watching his water. Bring your own bread and butter. His reverence. Mum’s the word.”

  5. Mary Vallely

    I take mjt’s point @3 and my husband would certainly concur with that description of his school experience. There are some people who should never have been allowed into the teaching profession. Deeply unhappy, psychologically disturbed people who were free to rule unchallenged. Hopefully the days of allowing such behaviour to destroy young bodies, minds and souls are over. All unjust authority must be challenged. The days of single sex institutions should be coming to an end. This one to which we all belong is very slow to wakening up to the fact that men AND women working together as equal partners can surely try to mirror Christ’s values better than men working alone.

    However, I have seen the effect of parenthood on both my husband and three of my four brothers and of male friends and colleagues and often pause to wonder at the intensity of that love for their children. It is a huge sadness to think of how much my father’s generation and previous generations lost out on not being allowed to get involved in the daily messiness and joy of child rearing. It is something I believe that society still doesn’t recognise, the passion and depth of fatherly love. Particularly sad when a child, no matter what age, dies before the parents and it is the mother only who is the focus of support. Quite often a father’s grief is forgotten. I used to think no one could ever love my children as intensely as myself but that surely is unfair to my husband who loves them as deeply as I do.

    I think that’s the point I was trying to make, that many of those in the church who have been responsible for the cover up of clerical child abuse did not have the care of children as a priority because they had not experienced that intensity of feeling in having lived with a child. Children teach us how to be decent human beings. Of course the ‘child within’ is always with us but we can so easily lose touch with that inner child. Being in the company of children resurrects the child within and therefore that empathy and compassion for all children.

    Your final point, mjt, is one worth exploring on its own thread. What false gods do we worship today? What idols have taken hold of our very souls? What would Joyce have given his genius to exploring if writing nowadays? It is a good time to reflect on this as we stumble along the Lenten path. Good to hear from you.

  6. Paddy Ferry

    And, New York too, Joe, where it is a nightmare trying to find a “rest room” as they call a loo over there.

  7. mjt

    Joe O`Leary @ 4, Surely that`s the anticlericalism of Joyce`s fictional character, not his own! In any case, it merely reflects widespread opinions held then, whether merited or not. Thank you too, Mary, for teasing those ideas out!

  8. Eddie Finnegan


    I have just seen this post from last week. Blame my naiveté, but I’m sure that the poster of this NCR article must have been at least mildly interested in the story’s substance – latest news of a belated start to a possible compromise resolution of the seven-year dilemma of a shepherdless flock and its more than five-year toxic split over the perceived imposition of an outsider as bishop. But as so often on social media platforms, well intentioned trains of thought get derailed and head off towards different destinations, leaving the original cargo dumped in the sidings. If all we have is a hammer, any post may seem a handy target for a nail on which to hang our own homegrown hang-ups. We all do this from time to time even if it means that, as in this case, crises or good news stories in other local churches, even those with a recently strong Irish origin, inspiration and shepherding, go unexplored.

    It’s hardly the Popes, Benedict or Francis, who are to be pitied here so much as the ordinary Catholics of Ahiara on whichever side of the dispute they may have found themselves since 2012, through no fault of their own. Any episcopal appointment is just as good as the initial advice and guidance the Pope gets from the field or the peripheries – or perhaps from any grey eminences behind the throne who feel they should still have a dog in the fight – which probably isn’t the moral the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria would like the priests and people of Ahiara or Mbaise to draw from the imposition of a bishop without any consultation. No, the CBCN would prefer to pontificate grandly about the Pope’s inspired appointment of their new bishop and the role of the Holy Spirit in a universal church without borders.

    Meanwhile, over in Cabra, Archbishop Okolo must be relieved to see that this thread is not about to develop into a coded early warning shot across his bows on the potential hazards of nominating episcopabili from beyond ecclesiastical provincial frontiers – which, of course, the CBCN would assure us are only a figment of our imagination. The Nuncio, though born up North in Kano, was educated and ordained for his family’s home turf, Onitsha Archdiocese, before being incardinated into the new diocese of Nnewe. In short, given different circumstances +Jude Thaddeus might not have proved any more welcome as a bishop in Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise country, Owerri province in Imo State than did +Peter Ebere Okpaleke from Awka which, like Nnewe, has been relatively recently carved out of Onitsha Archdiocese in Onitsha province, Anambra State.

    Where so parochial a premium is placed, whether in Igboland or Ireland, on getting an episcopal ‘son of the soil’, there may be much to recommend a young priest of parts with a bit of get-up-and-go about him to do just that, sit that ‘civil service exam’ early on that will allow him to scarper up the ladder of the Holy See’s overseas service. To be Dean of Dublin’s Diplomatic Corps within months after your 60th birthday, archbishop to boot with half of Ireland’s canons, monsignori, Maynooth profs and every young cleric under 60 fawning and hanging on your every move around the country must surely be preferable to kicking your heels in your home parish or diocese while the uppity priests and people of some minnow diocese such as Ahiara shun you like the plague.

    I’ve been sort of tongue-in-cheek there – I think – though Ahiara may indeed hold some lessons for those who worry overmuch about papal nuncios transplanting or translating Kerrymen to Cloyne, Elphinmen to Kerry, Ossorymen to Galway, Albanianmen to Clogher, West-Kerry Dubs to Limerick or, in the dim and distant past of Propaganda Fide, Dundalkmen to Killala and Galway Tribesmen to Armagh. If Spiritan missionary bishops like Joseph Shanahan of Currafrusha in Tipp or Charles Heerey from Oldcastle could leave a lasting legacy in Greater Onitsha-Owerri, or if +Joseph Whelan of Limerick is still fondly remembered in Greater Owerri, maybe those much sought after ‘sons of the soil’ are made or adopted, not necessarily born there.

    Yet there, perhaps, analogies with Ireland today begin to limp a little. Of the 13 dioceses of the neighbouring ecclesiastical provinces of Onitsha and Owerri, in territorial terms Ahiara is by far the tiniest – you could easily fit 2.5 Ahiaras into Ireland’s smallest diocese – yet its half-million Catholics make up 80% of its population, exceeded in %age terms only by Nsukka in Onitsha province. More than 200 of its priests recently wrote their apologies, under some duress, to Pope Francis but are still adamant that +Peter Okpaleke from Awka is not welcome as their bishop. If only we had 200 ‘rebel priests’ on the whole island of Ireland writing apologies or not to the Pope, yet standing firm in their conviction of the bishops their people truly want or need, ACP would really be in business.

    The Ahiara fracas is, of course, complex in its causes, its trigger and in how it has worked out so far. It is not unique, however, in West Africa. Now that Francis and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples have resiled from applying the stick of canonical sanctions, Rome may be hoping that the somewhat unsatisfactory carrot they came up with for Makeni Diocese in Sierra Leone in 2015 may eventually be accepted in Ahiara. They should not conclude that it is only the priests and people of Mbaise district (or of Makeni in Sierra Leone’s Northern province) that have lessons to learn from these very similar and contemporaneous ‘rebellions’. Bishops and priests of Onitsha Province, or of Sierra Leone’s Western and Southern dioceses of Freetown and Bo, need to avoid using the theme of the Catholic Church’s borderless universality when it suits themselves as a weapon against priests and people of Ahiara or Makeni.

    Just one of Nigeria’s 75+ bishops, +Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan Diocese in the North’s Kaduna State, has dared to break ranks with his CBCN colleagues, almost six months after Pope Francis’s second intervention last June. Bagobiri laid it on the line for his fellow bishops, not only in his response to their intransigence but in his subsequent response to their outraged response, as made clear by the Ahiaran Catholic editor of Lagos’s ‘The Niche on Sunday’ newspaper:

    Following Pope Francis’s more recent appointment of neighbouring Umuahia’s experienced Bishop Lucius Ugorji as possibly long-term Apostolic Administrator to Ahiara, it seems that Bishop Bagobiri and several lay Catholic commentators such as Ikechukwu Amaechi above and the ‘Rainbow’ editor of ‘The Nigerian Voice’ below may have a much better grasp of where the burden of blame should lie and what the relationship of bishops to their priests and people should be than the majority of the CBCN will ever understand:
    [Note: this ‘Sword of Damocles’ piece dates from December 2013, one year into the crisis and exactly four years before the ‘Tyranny of Nigerian Bishops’ editorial above.]

    As to whether Cardinal Francis Arinze [once youngest Catholic bishop when at 32 he attended the Vatican Council’s final session; successor to +Charles Heerey as Archbishop of Onitsha; Emeritus President and Prefect of two Vatican dicasteries] had a hand in the nomination of the Awka-Onitsha man for Ahiara, I have seen no clear evidence for this persistent speculation. Maybe all we can pray for from this point forward is that, ‘now they are high in their mansions above’, Joe Whelan of Owerri can hold his own against the combined weight of his Spiritan confreres, Joe Shanahan and Cha Heerey of Onitsh-Owerri for the sake of all Ahiarans and the Catholics of Nigeria who have to deal with the bishops they’ve got. Meanwhile, Papal Nuncio Archbishop Okolo of Onitsha & Nnewe provenance will no doubt remember Francis’s advice to the gathering of Vatican diplomats in 2013 and fall asleep every night repeating the three key words:L ‘consultation’, ‘consultation’, ‘consultation’.

    But maybe we should place those three key words alongside the three ironies John L Allen Jr associated last June with the case of Ahiara and Francis’s display of papal muscle:

  9. Pádraig McCarthy

    It seems important to recognise what Pope Francis has achieved.

    I think it may echo what Norman Mailer wrote in the 26 December 1963 issue of the New York Review of Books, following the assassination of John F Kennedy:

    The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

    Norman Mailer
    December 26, 1963 Issue
    What one has written about Kennedy was not reverent. Now, in the wake of the President’s assassination, a sense of real woe intrudes itself. For it may be that John F. Kennedy’s best claim to greatness was that he made an atmosphere possible in which one could be critical of him, biting, whimsical, disrespectful, imaginative, even out of line. It was the first time in America’s history that one could mock the Presidency on so high a level, and we may have to live for half a century before such a witty and promising atmosphere exists again. So most of what one had to say, intended to have the life of contemporary criticism, becomes abruptly a document which speaks from the far cliff of a divide, from a time which is past, from history. What a sense of the abyss that the man is no longer with us, not there to be attacked, not there to be conversed with in the privacy of one’s mind.

    There will be a time when Pope Francis is no longer with us, no longer there to be criticised, not there to be conversed with in the privacy of one’s mind. There was certainly criticism of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI and of other popes, but is seems to me that we now have a healthier situation.

    There is a greater greatness, if I may put it like that, in being a person who is open to criticism than in a person who is not so.

    The frankness of Francis.

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