Pope's pick to head Vatican office handling sex abuse allegations is 'troubling,' group says

Pope Francis presides over the Holy Mass on the occasion of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles, in St Peters Basilica. Vatican City (Vatican), June 29th, 2023 (Photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Archivio Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio via

 A U.S.-based group that keeps track of how the Catholic hierarchy deals with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy says Pope Francis made a "troubling" choice in appointing an Argentine prelate to a powerful Vatican office that handles such cases.

On Saturday, the Vatican announced that the pontiff had picked Monsignor Victor Manuel Fernández, who is archbishop of La Plata, in the pope’s homeland, to head the Holy See’s watchdog office for doctrinal orthodoxy. That office’s mandate also includes handling of sex abuse allegations lodged against clergy.

BishopAccountability, which is based in Massachusetts, said in a written statement that the prelate in 2019 refused to believe victims who accused a priest in the La Plata archdiocese of sexually abusing boys.

Francis "has made a baffling and troubling choice,'' the group said in statement emailed late Saturday in the United States. The statement cited what it said was Fernández' handling of the case in the Argentine archdiocese. "In his response to allegations, he stoutly supported the accused priest and refused to believe the victims,'' BishopAccountability.org said.

Telephone calls to the La Plata archdiocese office went unanswered on Sunday. The archdiocese didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment from the archbishop on the criticism by BishopAccountability.org.

As prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the 60-year-old archbishop, who will take up his Vatican post in September, "will have immense power, especially when it comes to judging and punishing priests who abuse children,'' the U.S. group said.

A trusted adviser to the pontiff, Fernández has been nicknamed the "pope’s theologian″ since he is widely believed to have helped author some of Francis’ most important documents.

Among the duties of the dicastery, or department, are evaluating and processing allegations by victims that they were abused by pedophile priests.

According to BishopAccountability.org, on account of his handling of the 2019 allegations, Fernández "should have been investigated, not promoted to one of the highest posts in the global church. Nothing about his performance suggests that he is fit to lead the pope's battle against abuse and cover-up.''

Francis has pledged that the Catholic Church will adhere to a zero-tolerance policy on clergy sexual abuse.

BishopAccountablity.org said after a child abuse complaint against the La Plata parish priest from 2008 resurfaced in 2019, the archbishop, who was named by Francis in 2018 to head the archdiocese, published a letter from the priest on the archdiocese's website in which the clergyman denied the allegation, contending he was slandered.

BishopAccountability.org lamented that the archbishop later went to that parish and concelebrated a Mass with the accused priest.

Despite more allegations surfacing against the priest, Fernández allowed him to continue in his parish ministry, the group said, until the archbishop removed him from the post citing the priest's request to leave for "health reasons.'' In December 2019, the priest took his own life hours after a judge issued an order for his arrest, according to the group and Argentine media reports at the time.

BishopAccountability.org is a 20-year-old group that maintains an online archive documenting the global abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.