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Drunken driving charges unlikely to cost Worcester bishop his post

US precedent, local sentiment favor McManus in drunk-driver case

The drunken driving case against Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester is scheduled to take its next turn this week in a Rhode Island courtroom. The prelate faces civil penalties and criminal charges, which include an allegation that he left the scene of an accident.

But past practice suggests it is unlikely that his employer, the Roman Catholic Church, will take strong action against him.

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“There is no clear mathematical formula for deciding exactly how they will react,” the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said of the Vatican’s process for disciplining bishops. “They look at the whole context of the situation. But the desire is to save the bishop and keep him in his ministry, as long as it’s not harmful to the diocese.”

Reese noted that a number of US bishops have survived drunken driving cases in the past. Salvatore J. Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in 2012, when he was still archbishop-elect; he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and went on to be installed. The late Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis was arrested for drunken driving in 1985; he lost his license temporarily but served another decade before retiring.

The bishop of Phoenix, on the other hand, resigned in 2003 after his arrest in a fatal hit-and-run. It was an egregious case that came shortly after he acknowledged covering up sexual abuse cases.

Still, said the Rev. Thomas Worcester, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester who has written about the papacy, “it’s very rare for the Vatican to remove a bishop.”

“One never knows with a new pope what might be considered appropriate action. There aren’t a lot of precedents,’’ Worcester said. “But judging by precedent, it would be unlikely.”

‘There is no clear mathematical formula for deciding exactly how they will react.’

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Thus far, the reaction in Worcester to the charges against McManus has been muted. Francesco C. Cesareo, president of Assumption College, said no one complained when McManus celebrated Assumption’s baccalaureate Mass and presided at its commencement exercises the weekend after the May 4 incident.

“In fact, what I witnessed was a lot of outpouring of support by members of the audience,” he said. “As we were going up the aisle, a few people reached out, patted him on the back, said, ‘We’re with you, bishop,’ or, ‘Hang in there, bishop.’ ”

Anne Barrett Doyle, a leader of Bishop Accountability, a clergy sexual abuse watchdog group and online archive of the abuse scandal, said McManus should face consequences, “just because a bishop is so crucial as a moral example.”

She said she was especially troubled that his account of how much he drank did not seem to square with a police report that implied he was very impaired.

But Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, noted that McManus is a first-time offender.

“My guess is Rome will require him to get some help, especially if he has a drinking problem, but then will keep him in office,” Groome said. “It is simply a sense of redemption — that he made a bad mistake, but he can recover from it.”

And, unlike Muslims, Mormons, and some Protestants, Catholics have never made drinking itself taboo, and the consumption of alcohol is deeply embedded in the cultures of many majority-Catholic countries, including Italy.

“Rome would be somewhat tempered by the admonition of Jesus that the one among you without sin be the first to cast a stone,” Groome said, “with the implication that few are entitled to rush to judgment.”

Authorities have said McManus, 61, was driving in Narragansett, R.I., when his car struck another vehicle. He kept going, but the person in the other car followed him to the home of McManus’s family in town, where the bishop was arrested after failing three sobriety tests and refusing to take a chemical breath test, according to the police report.

The report said his speech was slurred, he was unable to count, and the investigating officer halted a sobriety test for fear that McManus might fall. The bishop later said he had one glass of wine and a cocktail with a dinner of pasta and steak 3½ hours earlier.

McManus pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident with property damage.

He then pleaded guilty to a civil violation of refusing to submit to a breath analysis test. For that violation, he paid $945 in fees and fines and still faces a six-month license suspension, 10 hours of community service, and a mandatory alcohol education class.

Authorities have said it is common in such pleas for the misdemeanor drunken driving charge to be dismissed, but it is less clear what will happen with the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Wednesday.

McManus declined through a spokesman to be interviewed. The diocese released a statement shortly after the incident in which McManus said he had made “a terrible error in judgment.”

“There is no excuse for the mistake I made, only a commitment to make amends and accept the consequences of my action,” he said in the statement.

McManus, who has been bishop since 2004, has continued with his work, according to the diocese. His loss of driving privileges has not been an issue because he is routinely driven to liturgical and civic events, the diocese said, and family and friends are helping him during off-hours.

The church has no clear process for removing bishops. Canon law says prelates can be removed only for “grave reasons” but does not specify what those are, said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. In practice, Allen said, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, with three parties weighing in: the other bishops of the country; the nuncio, or Vatican ambassador’s office; and the Vatican, specifically, the Congregation for Bishops and Secretariat of State.

Allen reported last year that Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in February, ousted four bishops in 2011 and 2012. An Australian bishop was fired for doctrinal reasons, including supporting women’s ordination; others were apparently fired for alleged mismanagement or other issues.

It remains to be seen how Pope Francis will handle disciplinary cases involving bishops. Among the many complex issues the new pontiff has inherited is the case of Roberto Octavio González Nieves, the archbishop of San Juan, who has refused the Vatican’s request to resign. ABC News reported, based on foreign press accounts, that the Vatican has accused Nieves of protecting abusive priests and supporting legislation granting some rights to gay couples living together. Nieves, the network said, has said he has done nothing wrong and suggested the case against him is politically motivated.

In Worcester, there do not appear to be demands for McManus’s ouster. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, in two editorials, scolded the bishop but ultimately struck a merciful tone. “If we’ve never done something as egregious as drive after drinking . . . we have done something else stupid behind the wheel,” a May 16 editorial said. “Sometimes we get caught, ask forgiveness, and resolve not to allow it to happen again.”

Since his arrest, McManus, as part of his annual schedule, has presided at the confirmations of some 750 young people, including that of Alice Bernard’s son earlier this month.

“It was a very joyous occasion,” she said. “I say, ‘You know, we’re all human. People fall, then we get up and move on, with God’s grace.’ ”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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