ROME – Argentinian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, Pope Francis’s pick as the new head of the Vatican’s powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, has said that he originally declined the position in part because he feels incompetent in handling the clerical abuse crisis.
In a Facebook post Saturday, Fernández told his friends and followers that when the pope initially asked him to take over at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), “I gave him various reasons for saying no.”
“One of them is that the task includes the issue of child abuse, and I do not feel prepared nor trained for these issues,” he said, reiterating the point in a second Facebook post on Sunday in which he said the abuse crisis “pains and embarrasses us,” but insisted that “I do not feel qualified or trained to guide something like this.”
Currently the archbishop of La Plata in Argentina, Fernández is a longtime friend of Pope Francis and a key ghostwriter for many papal texts, including the pontiff’s 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si’; his 2016 post-synodal exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia; and his first-ever apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudim, published in 2013 and widely considered a tone-setting text for the entire Francis’s papacy.
Fernández’s appointment as head of the DDF was announced July 1 and accompanied by a personal letter from Pope Francis in which he criticized “immoral methods” used to defend the faith from error in the past and said that rather than persecuting doctrinal errors, what he wants of Fernández is “something very different.”
Pope Francis in the letter indicated that Fernández would ensure that all Vatican documents “accept the recent Magisterium” and asked Fernández to leave the handling of the clerical abuse of minors to experts in a special disciplinary section that deals with these cases, focusing instead on fostering theological exploration and dialogue.
In Saturday’s Facebook post, Fernández said that a month after saying no to the new job, he finally said yes when the pope asked him again during a hospital stay in early June following surgery for an abdominal hernia.
“You can imagine that it was impossible to say no,” Fernández said, saying at that time, the pope explained to him “that the issue of abuse is now in a fairly autonomous section, with professionals who know a lot about this issue and work with great seriousness.”
“Therefore, I would have to deal with another thing that concerns him a lot at the moment: Encouraging reflection on the faith, deepening theology, promoting thought which knows how to dialogue with what people live, to encourage a free and creative Christian thought, with depth,” he said.
Fernández said he was excited by this task and “could not stand aside when Francis is asking me for help.”
He said he finally accepted “with joy” and sees his new task as “a wonderful challenge,” though not without its complexities and “many cons” that come with it.
Among the cons of the job, he said, is the fact that “there are people who prefer a more rigid, structured way of thinking, at war with the world,” and who will therefore disagree with his approach to theology.
In the past, the DDF was mostly dedicated to “persecuting heretics, those who made doctrinal errors,” he said, saying that torture was among the “immoral methods” of dealing with doctrinal deviants that the pope referred to in his letter.
Pope Francis, he said, “is asking me for something very different, because errors are not corrected by persecuting or controlling, but by making faith and wisdom grow. That is the best way to preserve doctrine.”
Fernández said he had just returned from spending a week in Rome with Pope Francis, who has already found him an apartment inside the Vatican with small patio and a view of the Vatican Gardens.
“He knows that I come from the countryside and need that. Notice how dedicated he is. That is why it is a pleasure to work close to him and [to] accompany him more closely,” Fernández said.
In his Sunday Facebook post, Fernández elaborated on the process of his nomination, saying that when he initially declined the job earlier this summer, he did it “with all the pain in my soul, because [the pope] is older, he needs trusted people close by.”
He reiterated that his primary job will be to “dedicate more time to what gives the Dicastery its name: ‘the Doctrine of the Faith.’ That is to say, that Christian thought, the deepening of the truths of the faith, the study of the great topics in dialogue with the world and with the sciences, be promoted.”
Fernández said the pope, when he asked him a second time to take the job, promised to publish a letter specifically outlining what his task would be, and making it clear that he would not be very involved in the section handling clerical abuse cases.
“That’s why I finally said yes,” Fernández said, and asked for prayers, “since not everyone will be satisfied with this new orientation that Francis is giving.”
“I do not trust in my abilities, but in the certainty that the Holy Spirit will guide me,” he said, saying he will stay in La Plata until the beginning of August, with a farewell Mass being held on Aug. 5. He said he will then head to Rome a few days later and begin preparing to take over the DDF in mid-September.
Fernández’s Facebook posts come after increased scrutiny over his record on the abuse issue, with a prominent survivor advocacy group calling into question his handling of past cases in La Plata.
In an article published July 1, the same day as Fernández’s appointment was announced, Anne Barrett Doyle with the Bishop Accountability survivors group called the choice “baffling and troubling.”
Regardless of what was said in the pope’s letter, Doyle argued that as prefect, it will be up to Fernández to ensure the pope’s zero-tolerance policy on abuse is implemented, meaning he must make “child protection and justice for victims his highest priority.”
She raised several questions regarding his handling of a recent abuse case in La Plata, saying Fernández in response to allegations against a priest in his diocese “stood in stout support of the accused priest and refused to believe the victims,” disregarding the safety of children by keeping the priest in his post.
The case she was referring to is that of Father Eduardo Lorenzo, who committed suicide in 2019 after being accused of committing at least five instances of child sexual abuse. His death came the day after a judge ruled that he would be sent to prison.
According to Doyle, Fernández publicly defended Lorenzo after a complaint against the priest from 2008 resurfaced in February 2019, publishing articles by Lorenzo on the La Plata archdiocesan website in which he denied the allegations, calling them slanderous.
Doyle said Fernández also traveled to Lorenzo’s parish to concelebrate Mass with him and that he kept Lorenzo in his parish even after more victims came forward, while offering a soft caution not to travel or spend time alone with minors.
Lorenzo was finally removed in October 2019 as the civil case against him moved forward, and a warrant was issued for his arrest in December of that year.
After Lorenzo killed himself, Doyle said Fernández released a statement acknowledging the “enormous tension and suffering” that Lorenzo had endured, but said nothing to the alleged victims other than ensuring his prayers for “those who may have been offended or affected” by the charges against the priest.
“For his handling of this case, Fernández should have been investigated, not promoted to one of the highest posts in the global church,” Doyle said, saying, “Nothing about his performance suggests he is fit to lead the pope’s battle against abuse and cover-up.”
In a statement to the Associated Press Monday, Fernández denied the allegations in the Bishop Accountability statement, insisting that he “never” said he didn’t believe the victims in the Lorenzo case, and that he made efforts to ban Lorenzo from contact with minors and to confine him to church facilities.
“When someone files an accusation of this type, in principle they are always believed. But an investigation is also needed and to follow the due process established in the law,” Fernández said, saying the Argentine justice system in 2019 ordered preventative detention for the priest, who likely would have faced a criminal trial had he not committed suicide.
In February 2020, another priest from La Plata, former Father Roberto Juan Yannuzzi, was dismissed from the clerical state after being found guilty of sexual misconduct with adults.
Complaints against the priest had been made by members of the Miles Christi institute Yannuzzi founded in 1994, and were submitted to the DDF by Fernández a year before the priest was removed, suggesting that, in this case, he followed current Vatican protocol.
Among those handling abuse cases within the DDF is a special tribunal within the disciplinary section that investigates and rules on abuse cases, as well as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was formally inserted into the DDF last year as part of the pope’s reform of the Roman Curia, and which operates semi-autonomously in crafting safeguarding guidelines and best-practices for the global Church.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen