Shabby exit of anti-abuse reformer captures Vatican’s HR pandemic

Shabby exit of anti-abuse reformer captures Vatican’s HR pandemic

U.S. Msgr. Robert Oliver is pictured in a Feb. 5, 2013, photo. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

The recent departure of American Monsignor Robert Oliver as secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Minors forms a small part of a bigger picture about a largely undiagnosed HR pandemic in the Vatican.

News Analysis

ROME – I’ve got a small story to tell here, one of no great import or particular news value. Yet big pictures are woven from small details, and, in this case, it’s not a pretty picture to behold.

The small story concerns the recent departure of American Monsignor Robert Oliver as secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Minors, while the bigger picture is about a largely undiagnosed HR pandemic in the Vatican.

To begin with the small part, Oliver was recently removed from his position as secretary of the commission, which was created in 2014 to advise Pope Francis on the fight against clerical sexual abuse. The secretary is essentially the chief of staff, meaning the guy who makes the trains run on time.

In itself, there’s nothing especially unusual about the decision to send Oliver back to Boston, the archdiocese where he served as a key advisor to Cardinal Sean O’Malley on abuse issues before coming to Rome in 2012 to serve as Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He’s had more or less a nine-year run, which is fairly long by Vatican standards, and no matter how good someone is, there’s a natural tendency after such a span to get stale.

Oliver is a gifted pastor, a strong administrator and someone driven to serve, so he’ll be an asset no matter what his next assignment may be. (In all honesty, you could make a pretty good case that your odds of accomplishing something positive in the Catholic Church actually increase by a percentage point for every 25 miles or so of distance you put between yourself and Rome.)

Further, it’s not as if Oliver is upset about anything. He’s approached the transition with the same humility and good humor with which he handled everything the Vatican threw at him for almost a decade.

What rankles a bit for anyone else watching the situation unfold, however, is the manner in which Oliver’s exit was handled.

Oliver himself told the story in a recent Good Friday homily at the Boston cathedral. He had returned to the U.S. for what he assumed would be a quick visit, and, on a late March day, found himself in a Washington, D.C. airport awaiting a flight to Boston. As the plane was about to board, his phone lit up with calls from reporters wondering why he hadn’t been on a list of people reappointed to the Commission for Minors released by the Vatican that day.

Oliver connected with O’Malley, who informed him that, yes, his Vatican service was over. (O’Malley apparently had some choice words about the fact that none of Oliver’s superiors in the Vatican had given him a heads-up, but Oliver chose not to repeat them.)

As I said, that’s a small point that can easily be chalked up to standard bureaucratic breakdowns. Yet it also illustrates a deeper, chronic problem, one which is arguably the primary obstacle to meaningful Vatican reform.

In a nutshell, Oliver deserved better.

We’re talking about a guy who ripped up his life to answer Rome’s call almost a decade ago, and took what was, and still is, arguably the most gut-wrenching assignment the Catholic Church has to offer.

Oliver’s sat in countless rooms with survivors of clerical sex abuse, listened to them on the phone, swapped emails and texts with them, and poured over their letters and canonical petitions and case files. He’s also sat with priests accused of abuse – both those who are truly guilty, and some who were unjustly maligned. If you can think of a more psychologically and spiritually demanding way to earn the negligible salary a mid-level Vatican gig pays, I’d like to hear it.

It’s entirely accurate, but nonetheless unsatisfactory, to say, “That’s just the Vatican for you … nobody ever communicates and nobody ever says ‘thank you,’ so why should this guy be any different?”

That, however, is precisely the problem. If the Vatican can’t find a way to show such a person a little love on the way out, it says a lot more than was probably intended.

If you think the biggest administrative problem facing the Vatican is ideological division or internal corruption, you’ve been reading too many potboilers. Sure, there are occasionally spectacular cases of fraud, deception, personal immorality, and so on, but the chief day-to-day problem – one so hard-wired into the system that, after a while, people don’t even notice it – is that too often, rank-and-file personnel aren’t treated as human beings, worthy of working conditions in which they can flourish and reach their potential, but as disposable cogs in a bureaucratic machine.

That would be a fairly big fly in the ointment under any circumstances, but it’s especially worrying for the Vatican. Everyone knows the Vatican currently is overstaffed relative to its resources, which means it’s pressed every year just to pay salaries, steadily driving its annual deficit higher and higher, and with every year that goes by it also accumulates greater unfunded pension obligations, which, if something isn’t done, could lead to collapse.

It’s been clear for some time that the Vatican needs to trim personnel, but if it’s ever able to do that despite labor laws modeled on Italy’s that make it almost impossible to fire anyone, the slimmed-down staff left behind will have to be nimbler, more collaborative, more creative and able to handle several different projects at once, often for a variety of departments.

In other words, personnel need to be treated as valued members of a human community, not as parts in a mechanistic system that reflects the thought world of the Industrial Revolution more than Catholic social theory. Right now, that’s often far from the case.

Because there’s no gratitude in the system, there’s also often relatively little loyalty or motivation to excel. If somebody ever wants to launch a true Vatican reform, that’s maybe where it ought to begin – and the fact that something like this can still happen in March 2021 speaks volumes about where the current reform actually stands.

In the meantime, even if the system struggles to show gratitude, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t. So, to Oliver and all the other quiet change agents like him out there, thanks!

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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