Vatican’s New Point Man on Sexual Abuse

Father Robert Oliver will deal with serious offenses.

BRAINTREE, Mass. — Pope Benedict XVI has appointed a widely respected canon lawyer from the Archdiocese of Boston to the key Vatican post of promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

In that capacity, Father Robert Oliver will be charged with ensuring that Church law is followed carefully and with equity — most notably with respect to the high-profile area of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Currently assistant for canonical affairs to Boston’s vicar general, Father Oliver enjoys a stellar reputation among his fellow American canon-law specialists.

J.D. Flynn, canon lawyer and chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver, called Father Oliver an "expert" who is often consulted by other canonists.

"Father Oliver is highly regarded among American canon lawyers," Flynn told the Register. "He’s universally respected as a great canonical intellectual, but also a really seasoned practitioner of canon law."

In the Dec. 22 press release announcing the appointment, Father Oliver said that he accepts the new role with "deep humility" and asked for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. "Receiving this assignment during the Year of Faith is inspirational, and it is challenging," he said.

The promoter of justice is often referred to as the CDF’s "chief prosecutor" and is charged with investigating canon-law offenses that are regarded as being the most serious, including crimes against the sanctity of the Eucharist and violations of the seal of confession.

Flynn said the promoter of justice "sets the tone" for how disputes should be processed at the diocesan level. The closest analogy, Flynn said, would be that of an ombudsman, an investigator who mediates settlements.

U.S. Cardinal William Levada served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2005 until his retirement last July. He told the Register via email that, while he did not know Father Oliver personally, "Several people who do know him are high in his praise and think he is an excellent replacement for Bishop Charles Scicluna as promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

Added Cardinal Levada, "The work of the congregation in giving direction and assistance for the various individual bishops and the bishops’ conferences is an ongoing work for which Father Oliver should be well qualified."


The Sexual-Abuse File

Since 2001, courtesy of a papal motu proprio that came into effect while then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the promoter of justice has also investigated allegations of clerical sexual abuse committed against minors.

Father Oliver’s predecessor as promoter of justice, then-Msgr. Scicluna, was praised for his determination to ensure that sexual-abuse cases were dealt with justly and effectively. In November 2012, Pope Benedict appointed him as an auxiliary bishop in his native Malta, giving rise to the Vatican vacancy Father Oliver will now fill.

Speaking at a Vatican-sponsored international symposium in Rome on clerical sexual abuse last February, Msgr. Scicluna openly criticized the failure of some bishops to deal properly with abuse allegations.

He denounced a "deadly culture of silence, or omerta" and "the deliberate denial of known facts" as grave offenses against justice.

"No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability," Msgr. Scicluna said, but he added that canon law is already sufficient and that it is a case of "applying what we have."

However, in a 2010 interview posted at the Vatican website, Msgr. Scicluna categorically rejected claims that Pope Benedict was negligent in his own handling of sexual-abuse cases while he was serving as the CDF’s prefect.

"That accusation is false and calumnious," Msgr. Scicluna stated, noting that, prior to 2001, the CDF did not have clear authority to investigate such allegations. After the congregation was given that responsibility by Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger "displayed great wisdom and firmness in handling those cases, also demonstrating great courage in facing some of the most difficult and thorny cases," he said.


Father Oliver’s Expertise

Father Oliver was the director of Boston’s Office for Investigations from 2002 to 2005 and served on a training team for implementation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" from 2003 to 2008.

Some advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse have expressed concern over the appointment of Father Oliver to his new post, partly because he is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, where the clergy sexual crisis erupted into public view nearly 11 years ago. However, those who know Father Oliver closely insist that his appointment represents a confirmation of the "zero tolerance" policies developed by the U.S. bishops, in consultation with Rome, in response to the abuse crisis.

Brother Rahl Bunsa, the general superior of Father Oliver’s religious community, the Brotherhood of Hope, an association of the faithful founded 32 years ago, said Father Oliver was a part of Boston’s response team to allegations of clergy sexual abuse. He also has wide experience in meeting with the accused and accusers of sexual abuse.

"He was a major architect in the development of sound policies, directives and pastoral programs, which have made the archdiocese a leader in the Church in the U.S.A. in the area of protection of minors," Brother Bunsa said.

"Spiritually, he is a man of deep faith and prayer," Brother Bunsa added. "Underneath all of his gifts and experience is a strength of character that has been authentic and consistent over the 30 years that I’ve known him."

Originally from New York, the 52-year-old Father Oliver received a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate in canon law from The Catholic University of America. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2000. Father Oliver served as a professor, teaching theology and canon law, at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., from 1997 to 2010.

During that time, he was special assistant to Boston’s vicar general for three years. In 2010, he became the assistant to the vicar general for canonical affairs.

He has also served as judge and promoter of justice for Boston and filled canonical roles for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.

Father Carlos Suarez, ordained for the Archdiocese of Boston in 2011, took Father Oliver’s course on canon law, and Father Oliver served as his faculty adviser from 2008 to 2010.

Father Suarez called Father Oliver a "phenomenal adviser" who was at once attuned to the needs of his advisee and direct about his concerns. As a professor, he was thorough and made the law accessible.

Father Suarez said of Father Oliver’s qualifications, "He brings, certainly, great intelligence, but also the human element — the fact that he is caring and compassionate."

Denver archdiocesan chancellor Flynn said that, in the last 10 years, the Church in the U.S. has learned much about how to handle abuse allegations and how to integrate Church law into its day-to-day governance.

He said of Father Oliver’s appointment, "This is an important, high-profile role, and I think it’s a great time for an American to have the job because of what we’ve been through in the past decade."

Flynn said that Father Oliver has showed his compassion in dealing with church closings in Boston. In places where parishioners appealed closure to the Vatican, the archdiocesan policy was to allow Rome to complete the canonical process before taking action.

"The untold story of the Archdiocese of Boston is that, from a canonical perspective, they really have had a lot of receptivity to engaging with the lay faithful and working with different groups in the archdiocese to make sure that they’re consulting well and making prudent decisions," he said. "The Church, before she acts, should really listen and be at once pastoral and also acting in accord with justice, and I think that’s who Father Oliver is."

Christine M. Williams writes from Quincy, Massachusetts.

Register staff contributed

to this report.