Pope Francis backs down, OKs resignation of divisive Nigerian bishop

(Filippo Monteforte/POOL PHOTO via AP) Pope Francis arrives at the Basilica of Saint Anselmo prior to walking in procession to the Basilica of Santa Sabina before the Ash Wednesday Mass opening Lent, the 40-day period of abstinence and deprivation for Christians before Holy Week and Easter, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Pope Francis is marking Ash Wednesday with prayer and a solemn procession between two churches on one of ancient Rome's seven hills.

Vatican City • Pope Francis backed down Monday and accepted the resignation of a Nigerian bishop who had been rejected for years by the priests of his diocese, setting a precedent that could have repercussions in Chile and elsewhere when papal authority is challenged.

The announcement came after Francis in June issued a harsh ultimatum to the priests of Nigeria’s southern Ahiara diocese, warning they would lose their jobs if they didn’t obey him and accept Monsignor Peter Okpaleke as their bishop. Francis gave each priest 30 days to pledge obedience.

The Vatican said Monday that 200 priests obeyed, but some still expressed problems in working with Okpaleke.

Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Okpaleke to Ahiara in 2012, but the local clergy rejected him. Ahiara is in the Mbaise region, and its faithful objected to the appointment of an outsider from the Anambra region to lead them. In protest, the Mbaise blocked access to the cathedral when Okpaleke was to be formally installed, and he was installed outside the diocese.

The Vatican’s mission office said Monday the pope took the priests’ “repentance” into account in deciding not to sanction them for “the grave damage” they had inflicted on the church by rejecting Okpaleke. But the Vatican said it hoped “in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

The case could affect another divisive bishop appointment, Chilean Bishop Juan Barros.

Ever since Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno, Chile, in 2015, Barros has been rejected by many faithful and priests. His opponents cite accusations by sexual abuse victims who say Barros witnessed and ignored their abuse by Chile’s most notorious predator priest.

After Francis sparked an outcry during his recent trip to Chile by defending Barros, the pope did an about-face and sent in a Vatican investigator to take testimony about Barros’ behavior. The investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, met with Barros’ main accuser on Saturday.

Many Vatican watchers had cited the Nigerian conflict in explaining Francis’ refusal to remove Barros. Barros had been named a bishop by St. John Paul II and confirmed by Benedict, making it difficult for Francis to sack him without compelling reason.

But Francis’ decision to accept the resignation of the Benedict-appointed Okpaleke due to popular opposition suggests he could do the same for Barros, who has already offered his resignation twice and had it rejected by Francis.