Two priests from the United States, one with ties to Chicago and the other a veteran of the Boston archdiocese, have been named to key Vatican roles by Pope Francis in his clean-up effort with regard to the Church’s child sexual abuse scandals.
At the same time, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston has also been confirmed as president of a new anti-abuse commission created by the pontiff in December 2013.
Prior to this point the Vatican officially had described O’Malley only as a member of the commission, though behind the scenes he played the key role in its activities, including organizing a July 7 meeting for Francis with victims of abuse.
The Rev. Robert Oliver, who served as a key advisor to O’Malley in Boston on issues related to the abuse crisis until 2012, has been named to the new position of Secretary of the anti-abuse commission, formally called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Oliver has been working in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the past two years.
“It’s an honor to be able to help the church show some leadership” in the fight against child abuse, Oliver told Crux today in a telephone interview from Rome.
Oliver said his duties in the near term will be helping O’Malley round out the membership of the commission, especially bringing in people from places in the developing world such as Africa and Asia, and establishing working groups on matters such as mandatory reporting of abuse charges and formation of future priests to recommend policies to Pope Francis.
The appointment effectively means that Oliver will run the council’s day-to-day operations, and will serve as chief of staff for O’Malley and the other members of the commission, who also include an abuse survivor from Ireland named Marie Collins.
Oliver had previously served as the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a role akin to a District Attorney’s position in the United States with regard to offenses under church law which fall under the congregation’s jurisdiction.
In recent years, the most important of those offenses has been clerical sexual abuse, making the Promoter of Justice the lead official for overseeing prosecutions of accused clergy under church law.
To fill the position vacated by Oliver, Francis has named Fr. Robert Geisinger, a Jesuit from Chicago who since 2001 has served as the Procurator General of the Jesuit order, making him the chief in-house advisor on matters of church law to the Jesuit superior in Rome.
Geisinger is a well-regarded canon lawyer in Rome, who has frequently been called upon informally by other religious orders and bishops from various parts of the world to offer counsel on various matters of church law, including the response to abuse allegations.
“He has a deep knowledge of canon law, and great relationships with people all around the world,” Oliver said of his successor.
Born in Parma, Ohio, Geisinger had previously worked as the Associate Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, as well as a presiding judge on the archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal, an important church court.
Right away, Geisinger will inherit a backload of cases for expelling abuser priests. The lack of speed at which such cases sometimes move in Rome is a frequent complaint of bishops, especially in the United States.
“Although we bishops have sympathy for the workload of the Holy See, we still cringe at the slow pace of even clean-cut cases that need to be dealt with decisively, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in a recent Crux interview.
Oliver belongs to a small religious order founded in New Jersey in 1980 called the Brotherhood of Hope which has its origins in the charismatic movement, a current within the Catholic Church that draws on some of the spirituality and worship styles associated with Pentecostalism.
The dual appointments of Oliver and Geisinger, along with the confirmation of O’Malley, are likely to be seen as reinforcing the growing dependence of the Vatican on models of responding to the abuse crisis first worked out in the United States.
The choice of Oliver in particular underscores the importance of O’Malley in shaping policy on the abuse crisis under Pope Francis, since Oliver was a trusted figure in Boston and remains in close contact with O’Malley today.
“This is a chance to address all the issues that have to do with the protection of children, not just Catholics but children everywhere,” Oliver said. “This is such a great problem all around the world, and it’s important for the church to be in the lead.”