ROME – When Irish-born American Cardinal Kevin Farrell was appointed president of what is essentially the Vatican City State’s Supreme Court last week, it marked yet another way in which his star continues to rise, making him arguably the most prominent American, and one of the most prominent figures generally, in this pontificate.
A native of Ireland, Farrell moved to the United States and became a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington in 1984, and despite his noticeable Dublin accent, considers himself an American.
Last Friday the Vatican announced that Farrell had been appointed as the new president of the Court of Cassation, which is essentially the Vatican’s Supreme Court, with the position going into effect January 1 of next year.
Until recently, the president of the Court of Cassation was always the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Holy See’s highest appeals court, a position currently held by Italian Cardinal Dominque Mamberti. Pope Francis modified the rules of the Vatican judiciary in April, among other things separating those roles.
Farrell’s appointment to the court is the latest high-profile gig that he has been assigned under Pope Francis, who has now given him charge over five important offices.
The former bishop of Dallas, the 75-year-old Farrell – whose brother Bishop Brian Farrell is secretary for the Vatican Dicastery of Promoting Christian Unity – in mid-August 2016 was tapped as prefect for the then-newly minted Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
At the time, that department was the first new mega-dicastery in Pope Francis’s reform of the Roman curia, combining several different offices into one, and Farrell was one of the pope’s first major appointments in his curial reform.
Ghanian Cardinal Peter Turkson was named head of the mega-dicastery for Integral Human Development a couple of weeks later, in late-August 2016, but Farrell beat him by around two weeks.
Since then, Turkson has been demoted over what many observers believe were managerial and administrative shortcomings, and since last year has served as Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Farrell not only remains in his position, but his influence in the Francis papacy has continued to grow over the past seven years.
In February 2019, he was tapped for the key position of Camerlegno, a position responsible for administering the Vatican after a pope dies or resigns and before a new one is elected.
A year later, in October 2020, Farrell was appointed head of a Vatican commission that determines which of its economic activities remain confidential.
That commission was established as part of a new set of transparency laws enacted by the pope that year covering contracts for the purchase of goods, property, and services for both the Roman Curia and offices within the Vatican City State in a bid to centralize control of Vatican finances.
One of the main goals of the laws is to save money through the establishment of central purchasing offices in the Government of the Vatican City and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, which manages the Vatican’s real estate and assets.
Under Farrell’s leadership, this commission is tasked with judging on a case-by-case basis which of the Vatican’s financial activities and public contracts ought to remain confidential.
In June 2022, Farrell was also appointed as head of the Vatican Investment Committee, established by Pope Francis in his apostolic constitution reforming the Roman curia, Predicate Evangelium, and which is comprised of four experts in the field of financial investments from around the world.
According to Praedicate Evangelium, meaning “Preach the Gospel,” the Investment Committee is responsible for “ensuring the ethical nature of the Holy See’s movable investments according to the social doctrine of the church and, at the same time, their profitability, adequacy and risk.”
Given the authority increasingly placed in his hands through his growing list of key assignments, Farrell is increasingly emerging as not only a trusted papal advisor, but one of the most influential figures in the Francis papacy.
He also appears to be Pope Francis’s favorite American, as the pontiff has promoted him over other Americans initially touted as top aides, but whose star has since faded, such as American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who leads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors but is widely seen as less powerful than when he took the position almost 10 years ago.
Many observers have noted the irony of a pope seen as being fairly skeptical of Americans essentially setting one up as arguably among the most powerful officials in his papacy.
The fact that Pope Francis named him president of the court and appointed several other close allies as judges, including Cardinals Matteo Zuppi of Bologna; Paolo Lojudice of Siena; and Mauro Gambetti, papal vicar for Vatican City, signals another trend unique to Francis of side-stepping those who would traditionally be seen as close aides, such as his Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and opting instead for those with whom he feels he enjoys a shared vision and a significant level of personal trust.
Critics of the papacy sometimes have derided Farrell as “Bergoglio’s hatchet man,” a sort of backhanded tribute to his importance.
Farrell has drawn fire not only over ideology and his commitment to the Francis agenda, but also lingering question marks in terms of his knowledge and awareness of allegations against former priest and cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused and found guilty of sexually abusing minors and sexually harassing young seminarians and priests.
Prior to his appointment as archbishop of Dallas, Farrell in 1984 had been a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington, where McCarrick served as archbishop from 2000 until his retirement in 2006.
Shortly before McCarrick came on board, Farrell was named vicar general for the archdiocese, and in 2001 he was tapped as an auxiliary bishop for Washington, where he stayed until his appointment to Dallas in 2007.
Despite repeatedly denying that he had any knowledge of McCarrick’s misdeeds or the rumors about his conduct, Farrell has faced questioning over the affair. While the frenzy eventually died down, some still believe that given his proximity to McCarrick, Farrell had to have known more than he’s let on.
Such question marks, however, have not hindered his ascent up the ecclesial ladder. His appointment to a 5-year term as president of the Vatican’s Supreme Court despite having already reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 suggests he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, and will likely continue to be a fixture of influence in Francis’s Vatican.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen