Might Clergy Sexual Abuse Cases Be Shifted From the CDF?

A media report earlier this month suggested such a move was under consideration, but papal spokesman Greg Burke has downplayed such speculation.

Cardinal Ludwig Muller is the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Ludwig Muller is the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. (photo: ANSA via AP)

VATICAN CITY — Recent press reports have indicated that Pope Francis might be considering the transfer of clerical sex abuse cases from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to two other dicasteries. But it remains uncertain that such a move actually is being contemplated.

A Jan. 3 article in The Week asserted that the Pope recently had the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, ask the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts about the possibility of restoring the authority regarding sex abuse cases to the Congregation for the Clergy and the Roman Rota, where they were handled previous to being moved in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.

The article also claimed the Holy Father and some other senior Church leaders have directly intervened in several specific abuse cases that were being handled by the CDF.

The two dicasteries reportedly under consideration for handling clergy abuse cases are headed by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, and Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota (the Church’s highest court of appeal).

When asked by the Register Jan. 18 if oversight of abuse cases was being transferred back to the Rota and the Congregation for Clergy, Msgr. Pinto responded: “All this matter is in evolution.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy See Press Office, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors did not respond to the claims when the Register requested them to comment.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, also did not comment, while Msgr. Pinto declined to speak further on the subject.


Cases Moved

Two informed sources speaking on condition of anonymity have told the Register that at least 10 abuse cases have been moved from the CDF.

Owing to the cases’ sensitivity, nothing is publicly known about the instances the Pope has taken upon himself except one, that of Father Mauro Inzoli. An Italian priest formerly of the Diocese of Cremona, Father Inzoli was sentenced in June to four years and nine months in prison after being found guilty of eight incidents of sexual molestation of minors, including “touching” a minor in the confessional. Another 15 counts had lapsed due to a statute of limitations.

He violated his sacred trust as spiritual director for the young people of the Communion and Liberation movement, of which he was a senior member.

In 2012, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Father Inzoli was laicized. According to The Week’s article, Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Msgr. Pinto both intervened on behalf of Father Inzoli, and Pope Francis returned him to the priestly state in 2014, inviting him to a “a life of humility and prayer” as “signs of conversion and penance.” Bishop Oscar Cantoni, then of the Diocese of Crema (near Milan), said the decision was taken In January 2015, and Father Inzoli reportedly participated in a conference on the family in Lombardy later that year.

Msgr. Pinto denies knowing the priest, telling the Register “I don’t know him, I don’t know him at all,” while Cardinal Coccopalmerio regretted to say that he was unable to make any statements about the Father Inzoli case as it would “violate the privacy that rightly should be ensured in such sensitive cases.”

Many of the 10 cases alleged to have been transferred away from the CDF are believed to relate to Latin America. But Msgr. Robert Oliver, who as promoter of justice at the CDF until 2014 used to be in charge of such cases, told the Register Jan. 7 he had not heard of the allegations of transferring abuse cases from the CDF.

“What do they mean? Were they appeals? Were they recourses?” he said. “Was this done in the normal flow of things? Were they not even finished with a basic investigation before they were removed [from the CDF]?”

The U.S. priest, now the secretary to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the changes in procedure could be part of the reforms of the Roman Curia, exercised as a “means of considering different options which would be normal.” However, he added that he would be surprised at such changes.

“What the CDF can really contribute is a sense of unity so things are not treated differently,” he said, but added improvements could be made when it comes to improving the efficiency of trials of accused priests.


The CDF’s Role

Since 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has had responsibility for dealing with and judging very serious crimes such as clerical sex abuse cases, a role first instituted by Pope St. John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI then clearly formalized the CDF’s responsibilities in 2010 in an attempt to increase transparency and streamline procedures to make them more effective.

In most cases, once an accusation of sexual abuse involving a minor is leveled against a priest, his bishop and others conduct a preliminary investigation to establish whether the allegation has “the semblance of truth.” If it does, the case is immediately referred to the CDF, which decides whether the CDF will handle it or send it back to the bishop.

The CDF also decides whether there will be a trial or an administrative procedure, which usually involves less complex cases.

The prefect of the CDF would present the requests for laicization of priests, credibly accused of such crimes, during his weekly meetings with the Pope.

 In an interview with the Register last month, Cardinal William Levada, the CDF prefect during Benedict XVI’s pontificate,  said the “experience” that the congregation now has in the dealing with these cases “would favor the fact that it continues to do this.”

He also said that over the years, the CDF has also established the proper disciplinary actions to be taken in such cases, “with the participation of highly qualified canonists working and teaching in Rome.”

Cardinal Levada added although there is general uniformity in imposing penalties, individual cases are also scrutinized, with “the gravity of scandal and the problem of recidivism” taken into consideration. Further, he noted that the congregation has “gained vast experience in how to handle the experience of different countries and the interface with legal and police authorities.”

The cardinal praised the Holy See’s effort to make the protection of minors and vulnerable adults the “gold standard” of the Church across the globe, but he acknowledged that even within the Curia “there still were those who do not understand the value of the delicate — often difficult — measures needed to insure the protection of minors from sexual abuse, including penalties for those guilty of such abuse.”

“Not everyone was on board, but they understood Pope Benedict’s position. I was very clear about that in talks I gave and in working with various congregations of which I was a member,” he said.


Cardinal O’Malley’s Appointment

Some have been encouraged that the Pope recently appointed Cardinal O’Malley as a member of the CDF. As well as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the cardinal is also a member of the Pope’s C9 group of cardinals advising the Holy Father on curial reform.

Greg Burke, the papal spokesman, would not be drawn on whether Cardinal O’Malley’s appointment was made to ensure that abuse cases were prioritized, but said it was unlikely he would have been appointed to the CDF if cases were going to be shifted elsewhere, given his experience in this area.

“I don’t think you can only say he’s been appointed there for that,” he said, adding the cardinal’s experience “will be welcome there,” and that he is a “good addition to the CDF.”

Burke said he would advise “moving slowly” on talking about such responsibilities “being moved somewhere.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.