News Analysis

Archbishop Scicluna’s return to the Vatican is heartening news

Archbishop Scicluna, centre, in Chile (CNS)

The news that Pope Francis has appointed the 59-year-old Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to the position of adjunct secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) did not get as much attention as it might have under different circumstances. It is something worth a closer look.

Archbishop Scicluna’s appointment to the position, announced last week, received only one sentence in the daily bulletin, which specified that he would be keeping his See in Malta as he takes on the new duties. That suggests something of an ad hoc arrangement, with a view first of all to the meeting at the Vatican of all the heads of bishops’ conferences, on safeguarding minors and vulnerable adults, scheduled for February 21-24 next year.

Archbishop Scicluna is familiar with Rome, having worked at the Apostolic Signatura and then as Promoter of Justice – the Church’s chief criminal prosecutor – under Joseph Ratzinger from 2002. He stayed in that position through much of Ratzinger’s reign as Pope Benedict XVI. He was a principal draftsman of the reform legislation Benedict enacted to strengthen and streamline the legal processes used to investigate, try and punish priests accused of abuse. He is already a member of the CDF. In 2015, Pope Francis made him president of the then recently created College for the Examination of Appeals in matters of grave delicts at the Ordinary Session of the CDF.

If Archbishop Scicluna’s appointment to the adjunct secretary’s position is with a view to the February meeting – and we cannot read it any other way – it could stand to indicate a desire to give the meeting a strong policy focus. More broadly, however, it raises some questions regarding the Vatican’s response to the global crisis.

Archbishop Scicluna has been involved in several of the most high-profile investigations of the past 20 years. From the case against the notorious founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel, to Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh, to the Barros affair in Chile earlier this year, he has been the point-man and the go-to guy for more than a decade and a half.

Pope Francis’s decision to send Archbishop Scicluna abroad in search of answers to the Chilean situation earned the Holy Father a brief and partial reprieve this past spring. Many people – professional Vatican watchers and members of the faithful alike – were willing to take it as a sign that the Pope was taking the crisis seriously. When Archbishop Scicluna returned after three weeks with a 2,300-page dossier, expectations for action were high. Hopes were raised again when Francis summoned the Chilean bishops to Rome for an extraordinary gathering, which ended in all the bishops tendering their resignations.

Pope Francis, however, has been sitting on most of those resignations for several months, as Chilean prosecutors continue to root through chancery files. The intervening months have also seen the already global crisis of episcopal leadership expand and intensify. Now the crisis has active hotspots on every habitable continent – it is truly worldwide – and has wholly engulfed several national episcopates, and reached the doors of the Apostolic Palace. It will not abate without serious reforming actions, which could already be too late in coming.

The February meeting, moreover, is difficult to see as anything except a reaction to circumstance. There is as yet no agenda, nor an official list of participants. There is not even official word of which dicasteries are involved in the organisation and preparation. The announcement of the gathering came from the troubled C9 Council of Cardinal Advisers, at the end of a regularly scheduled three-day meeting in September, as tensions over the Viganò affair were high and tempers were flaring.

Archbishop Scicluna is the most experienced investigator working in the Church today, and the most successful prosecutor of sex abuse crimes. He is nobody’s fool, and as far as the administration of justice in the Church is concerned, he is the furthest thing one is likely to find from a stooge. He works within the system, but he does not behave like a company man. He is, in short, the closest thing to a “good guy” in this whole sordid business.

Having said that, he is also a good soldier, who will carry out his orders to the best of his considerable ability. The success or failure of the February meeting will depend largely on the Pope’s ability to identify the problem and take steps apt to root it out.

The question, in other words, is not whether Archbishop Scicluna is sufficiently capable or dedicated. The question is whether the February meeting can be organised and directed in a way that takes the axe to the root. Good policy and effective execution are always indispensable props in any reform project, but what needs reform is the episcopal culture – all clerical culture, really – the culture of leadership in the Church.

On both points, it is worth mentioning the old adage: personnel is policy.