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The CDF has been marginalised. Will Archbishop Scicluna’s appointment reverse that?

Archbishop Scicluna: troubleshooter (Getty)

The CDF is an essential organisation in the fight against sexual abuse, but it has had its wings clipped in recent years

If there was a Catholic “man of the year” for 2018, many people’s candidate would be Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta. Or perhaps “fireman of the year”, as he was deployed to extinguish the conflagration ignited by the Holy Father’s incendiary trip to Chile in January. He put out the fire threatening Francis, but saving the Pope left the Chilean Church in smouldering ruins.

It is an indication of how all-consuming the sexual abuse crisis is now in Rome that when Scicluna – while keeping his day job as Archbishop of Malta – was appointed in November the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it was widely hailed as a positive sign.

There was nary a raised eyebrow that the third most senior official at the CDF holds a view of conscience incompatible with the previous prefect (and likely the current prefect too) of the same congregation. In relation to Amoris Laetitia, Scicluna went far beyond the ambiguities of the original text. He issued guidelines for Malta – the most radical in the world – in which he presented an understanding of conscience which directly contradicts Veritatis Splendor. But now that it’s “all sex abuse all the time”, a bit of dubious doctrine at the CDF is – for some – a small price to pay when desirous of employing Scicluna’s credibility in the disciplinary section.

And that is what the November appointment of Scicluna to the CDF was meant to do: to lend his credibility to Pope Francis on the abuse file. If the CDF actually needed Scicluna, because there is no one else in the Church who could get the job done, then he would be appointed full time, not flying in from Malta on a part-time basis. Sex abuse is not a part-time crisis.

Scicluna’s credibility is considerable. He was brought to the CDF in 2002 by Joseph Ratzinger as the congregation took on its new role of supervising all cases involving minors. As Promoter of Justice – the CDF’s chief prosecutor – from 2002 until 2012, when he returned to Malta, Scicluna led the team that handled thousands of cases. He led the practical implementation of Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (SST), the 2001 reforms of St John Paul II that centralised canonical prosecutions of sexual abuse at the CDF. Moreover, in 2010 he helped to strengthen the provisions of SST, and was instrumental in the CDF instructing all bishops to report allegations to civil authorities. Finally, in 2011 the CDF gave all the episcopal conferences in the world a year to establish protocols like the Americans did after the Boston scandals of 2002.

Now Archbishop Scicluna is one of the four chairmen for the Vatican’s sex abuse summit in February. His presence is meant to reassure a newly sceptical media that Pope Francis is engaged on this issue. Indeed, at the recent synod, a hostile media put the question of the Holy Father’s commitment directly to Scicluna.

“Give him time,” was Scicluna’s loyal response, but it served only to undermine the Pope with faint praise.

What then does Scicluna’s return mean? When he speaks of the February summit as being “a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect”, does that mean that in February 2019 the Holy Father will ask bishops’ conferences to do what the CDF told them to do when Scicluna was there in 2011?

In June 2015, Pope Francis announced a special tribunal in the CDF to adjudicate the cases of bishops who had mishandled sexual abuse cases. Who was to lead it? Many assumed that Scicluna would; he had already been put in charge of a special appeals tribunal in the CDF for sexual abuse cases some months beforehand.

But the CDF tribunal for bishops never got established, partly because Pope Francis never asked the CDF whether it was a good idea. CDF officials read about it in the newspapers. In any event, the Holy Father himself abandoned the idea the following year.

Does the return of Scicluna mean a return to the 2002-2012 years when Ratzinger/Benedict was devoting resources and resolve to moving definitively through thousands of cases? Or is he going to the CDF in the same way that he went to Chile: a part-time, ad hoc response to the latest crisis swirling around the Santa Marta?

Scicluna left the CDF less than six months before the election of Pope Francis. Under Francis, the CDF has had its wings clipped in the investigation of bishops, had its personnel arbitrarily fired, suffered the dismissal of its prefect and been accused of foot-dragging in the matter of the surprise on-and-off special tribunal.

The CDF, a strong ally of John Paul and Benedict in the fight against sexual abuse, has been marginalised. Is the part-time appointment of Scicluna sufficient to reverse that? Much of what will unfold in 2019 depends upon the answer.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of