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
J.D. Flynn, canon lawyer and chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver,
called Father Oliver an “expert” who is often consulted by other
“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
U.S. Cardinal William Levada served as prefect of the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith from 2005 until his retirement last July.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”