ROME— In a move likely to be read as an attempt by Pope Francis to show resolve in the fight against clerical sexual abuse, the pontiff has named Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, widely seen as the leading reformer in the Catholic hierarchy, as a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican department that handles abuse cases.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, traditionally known as the “Holy Office,” is headed by German Cardinal Gerhard Muller. Its main responsibility is defending Catholic teaching, but since 2001, it’s also played lead in prosecuting cases under Church law for priests charged with sexual abuse.
Last June, Pope Francis also announced that the congregation would house a new legal section designed to impose accountability not only on abuser priests, but also on bishops and other Catholic superiors who covered up that abuse.
Since then, however, the launch of the new tribunal has been delayed amid legal and administrative wrangling, and O’Malley’s appointment may well reflect a desire by Francis to kick-start the process.
Making O’Malley a member of the doctrinal congregation does not imply a move to Rome, and he will remain the Archbishop of Boston.
The failure to get the new tribunal going has been frequently cited by critics as proof the Vatican isn’t really serious about its anti-abuse effort.
In June 2015 the Vatican had announced that Francis and his nine cardinal advisers had unanimously agreed to create a new judicial section within the CDF to handle “abuse of office” cases against bishops accused of failing to protect their flocks from child molesters.
As of March 2016 no steps had been made to set such a tribunal up.
A year after it was announced, the Vatican laid out legal procedures to remove these bishops if the Vatican finds they were negligent, empowering other departments beyond the CDF to investigate allegations if they see fit.
The new procedures sought to answer long-standing demands by survivors of abuse that the Vatican hold bishops accountable for botching abuse cases. Survivors have often accused bishops of covering up for pedophiles, moving them from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police.
“Canon law already foresees the possibility of removal from the ecclesial office for ‘grave causes’” Francis said in a short preamble to the law, called Like a loving Mother.
“With the following letter I intend to specify that among those ‘grave causes’ is included negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office, particularly relative to cases of sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults,” he wrote.
It was unclear at the time, and still is, what the role of the tribunal will be under these regulations, or if it’ll ever take form.
Since it was the body he leads, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, that first suggested its creation, some observers believe O’Malley could play a key role in making sure it becomes more than a mere announcement.
The cardinal has long advocated for bishop accountability.
“Our obligations under civil law must certainly be followed, but even beyond these civil requirements, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities who are charged with protecting our society,” he said in a statement on Feb. 2016.
American Monsignor Robert Oliver, an O’Malley aide in Boston, a former official of the doctrinal congregation, and now the secretary for the Pontifical Commission, praised the appointment.
“It’s great news both for the congregation and for our Commission for the Protection of Minors that Cardinal O’Malley has been named a member,” he said.
“For more than 25 years, he’s been a world-wide leader in promoting and in safeguarding the Church’s doctrine on faith and morals. With his unparalleled experience in the mission of protecting minors and vulnerable adults, Cardinal Seán will certainly make an important contribution to the work of the congregation,” Oliver said.