A mess to be sure, and what-about-ism cannot be the way forward. Inevitably, events transpire that begin to leak so-called facts, and then the cycle concludes with a trial by public opinion, an even more divided laity, a distrust in the hierarchy, and a tarnished witness of the Body of Christ to the world.
We've heard this before.
At the risk of contributing to the undue continuance of the news cycle around this issue, I'd like to comment upon a few important details that may get lost in the noise, in hopes that we can do better in the future.
1) It seems that there has been a real failure -- or at least a manifestation of the real poverty -- in our canonical systems. It may not be popular, but I believe His Excellency, Bishop Jaime Soto when he says that the process has extended out of his hands. It is also not surprising that the family and local congregation would support a priest who is by all accounts conservative, charismatic, and a sign of contradiction in our world over and against a local ordinary, who, like so many ordinaries in the Church today, is not known personally by the community but is perhaps seen as a distant administrator rather than a shepherd.
2) AND YET, to focus on the moral issue and the lagging canonical process that has not yet been resolved IS TO MISS THE POINT ENTIRELY. The primary documents that were either distributed publicly or else leaked demonstrate in abundance that the recent confirmation of excommunication by the Bishop is not at all in relation to the moral life of a priest, but rather is a far graver crime than that of morals. While inappropriate relationships in the closed forum undoubtedly cause damage to the individuals involved and consequently to the Body of Christ, the crime of schism is a direct assault on the whole of the Body itself. Moreover, the public manifestation of errant teachings brings with it the consequence of leading so many members of the faithful astray, who, through little fault of their own simply wish to follow the pastor they trust -- even if that is off a cliff.
3) The public airing of the allegations pertaining to the alleged moral indiscretions of the priest is an injustice to all. As difficult as it has surely been for the lay faithful not to have received any specific clarifications on the allegations from the Bishop, IT IS NOT THE RIGHT OF THE FAITHFUL TO KNOW THESE THINGS. The priest, even though suspended, has a right to a good name. In the modern West, we are too quick to project our alleged "right to a public trial" on to the processes of the Church. And yet, we have no such right to know. Let us imagine, for a moment, that Fr. Leatherby, who admits his guilt on the one hand but on the other strongly objects to the degree of the guilt to which he is being accused, is telling the truth. Will he be able to get a fair trial? And if so, would he be able to ever exercise ministry again? Not in any country that has access to the Internet.
4) The specific allegations revealed in the Catholic Herald bear a haunting resemblance to another story made public. This concurrence of stories about two conservative clerics who both studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome at the same time should bring up alarm bells for the reader. How did these priests come to fabricate these "rites" and plan to carry them out on the faithful? Is there a network of predator conservative priests being formed at the NAC? Or, is this simply a case of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," who latched onto a story floating around at the time she was being questioned? Frankly, I don't know and I am trying not to be overly curious -- we shouldn't even know these details, and this is the entire purpose of a tribunal process: to discover the truth insofar as it is able to be discovered, and to pass a judgment on the thing without the scrutiny of voyeurs from the outside.
5) If the report from the Diocese, that they would support Fr. Leatherby's request for laicization, is correct, this too is an injustice. It is an injustice because the trial regarding the crimes of a moral nature need to be brought to their proper conclusion for the sake of the alleged victims. It is an injustice because the crime of schism of a priest should be given a just sentencing, not a get out of jail free card so that this priest according to the order of Melchizedek can start up his own "independent 'catholic' church" with valid but illicit sacraments. It is an injustice because it may very well be that the salvation of Fr. Leatherby is dependent upon the tough love of a Mother rather than a laissez-faire policy regarding schism, one which embodies the spirit of the age, with the instruction"you go and do you, and that's okay".
Some other, secondary, remarks:
1) If the individual crime of schism is a serious one, the "Bene-vacantism" represented here is not a serious schism, but a fashionable idea that will die off in due course. Its telos is either sedevacantism outright, or else it is merely a weak tantrum akin to a teenager who lashes out after having done something wrong. Those who follow this route will most certainly be reconciled before the final judgment -- indeed, Fr. Leatherby's letter indicates that he is open to the possibility of correction of an error of fact (i.e.: who is in fact the pope). For the student of history, it should not be a surprise that when two people style themselves as pope in their external adornments and titles, that there would be confusion in the minds of the faithful. Let us pray that this... situation... does not endure for too much longer.
2) The 350+ lay faithful who have been led astray need some serious pastoral accompaniment. It may be that the Bishop is too distant and perceived as the bad guy to directly lend a hand, but perhaps their pastor/s can be given the Bishop's confidence and support in this effort.
3) We should pray for Fr. Leatherby, for his renunciation of error, and that he will be granted the grace of humility, to seek the solitude of a monastery where he might pray and offer penance for his grievous wounds on the Body of Christ. Perhaps, following the lead of His Excellency's invocation, those who are concerned for this priest (and not merely titilated by the thrill of a good priest gone bad) would consider a novena for his repentance and conversion. Considering the time of year, I would propose holding this novena from the Vigil of the Assumption (Aug. 14th) through the feast of the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22nd). Here's a good novena.
In conclusion, I earnestly hope that there is justice for all involved in what has now become a 3-ring circus. Schism is never a good thing, and this should not be obfuscated because of alleged improprieties that have not yet been given a final judgment. That these two would be conflated, or that schism would even be eclipsed by crimes of a more private nature, simply does not bode well about the outcome.
Oremus pro Ecclesiam!