VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — Concerns remain unanswered about Archbishop Victor Fernández’s suitability to serve as Prefect of the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith, given his questionable record on handling allegations of sexual abuse and the chief responsibility he now holds for dealing with them throughout the entire Church.
As now widely reported, the heterodox Argentine prelate Archbishop Fernández is due to commence his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in mid-September, merely a matter of weeks. As CDF prefect, he will have overall charge of the two sections which comprise the Vatican body: namely, the doctrinal and the disciplinary sections.
The doctrinal section, as per the CDF’s own description:
deals with matters pertaining to the promotion and protection of the doctrine of faith and morals. It also encourages studies aimed at increasing the understanding and transmission of the faith in the service of evangelization, so that its light may be a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.
Fernández’s record on doctrinal issues – such as the use of condoms, openness to same-sex blessings, and teaching on same-sex “marriage” – have already been highlighted, with numerous Catholics raising concerns about his inability to lead the CDF given his position on such issues alone.
But additional criticism has been made of his record handling cases of sexual abuse, given that as CDF prefect he will be ultimately responsible for the handling of sex abuse cases throughout the entire Church.
In light of his appointment, the U.S. advocacy group Bishop Accountability warned that Fernández’s record suggested he “should have been investigated, not promoted to one of the highest posts in the global church. Nothing about his performance suggests he is fit to lead the Pope’s battle against abuse and cover-up.”
The group’s concern stems back to Fernández’s time as Archbishop of La Plata in 2019. Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of Bishop Accountability and the statement’s author, argued that Fernández had “publicly defended an influential” priest of the archdiocese in the wake of re-surfaced child sex abuse allegations dating to 2008.
Faced with allegations regarding the priest, Father Eduardo Lorenzo, Fernández published a letter from Lorenzo on the archdiocesan website in which the priest denied the allegations as “slanders, insults and defamations.”
Fernández also supported Lorenzo publicly, defending his position to post Lorenzo to a school after parents vocally protested. He wrote that it was “certainly not the case” that Lorenzo was a “dangerous being,” and said that parental concerns “went from what could have been an understandable concern, to a crude battle to ridicule your figure.”
Doyle wrote how Fernández went on to concelebrate Mass with Lorenzo in March 2019 as the priest was “under fresh criminal scrutiny.” Doyle continued:
In December 2019, hours after a judge issued an order for his arrest, Lorenzo committed suicide. At this point, five victims had come forward. Fernández released a brief statement, saying that Lorenzo had killed himself ‘after long months of enormous tension and suffering.’ He issued no words of comfort to the victims, saying only that he would pray for “those who may have been offended or affected” by the charges against the priest.
Responding to questions about the events, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of La Plata told CNA that “the archbishop never expressed that he did not believe them [the victims], beyond what some blogs that issue free opinions may have said.”
The spokesman added that “When asked by the journalists, the archbishop clearly responded that ‘when someone presents an accusation of this type, in principle, THEY ARE ALWAYS BELIEVED, but beyond that, an investigation and due process are necessary because the legislation itself establishes it.’”
The archdiocesan spokesman argued that La Plata had a good record responding to sexual abuse allegations, and added that,
with respect to what some notes say about the functions that the archbishop will have in the dicastery, he asked me to indicate that the pope’s letter addressed to Mons. Fernández asks him to entrust matters referring to child abuse to the section discipline that has specialized professionals and that he dedicates himself rather to the doctrinal or theological section that needs development.
But Doyle remained unconvinced by the archdiocese’s statement, responding that “if his response to this case is representative of his attitude toward allegations, he will do tremendous harm as prefect” of the CDF.
Fernández admits shortcomings
Cardinal-designate Fernández has in fact partly addressed the issue of the new responsibilities he will have. He wrote that he initially refused the role of CDF prefect due to the tasks overseeing the response to abuse. “I do not feel trained nor did I have a training to guide something like that,” he told the Archdiocese recently.
The Pope reportedly only persuaded Fernández to accept the role when “he told me that I do not need to address issues related to child abuse, because there is a team of specialists who do it very well and who can work quite autonomously. And that what he needed is a Prefect who can spend more time on what gives the name to the Dicastery: ‘the doctrine of Faith.’”
In his groundbreaking letter welcoming Fernández to the CDF, Pope Francis reitereated this and wrote that Fernández would not have to deal directly with matters of abuse.
Indeed, the disciplinary section is coordinated by Monsignor John Kennedy as secretary, who has been an official in the CDF since 2003, and has led the CDF’s disciplinary office since 2017. As such, he has been in charge of dealing with reports of clerical sex abuse from across the world, and told the Associated Press in 2019 that the case load was four times as large as it had been in 2009.
Msgr. Kennedy’s role involves assisting the Prefect “with the specific area” of his section’s competence.
Hence, even though Fernández and Pope Francis have argued that the incoming prefect will be able to leave the handling of sex abuse cases to the Disciplinary Section, such an eventuality does not align with the duties or structure of the CDF itself.
The cardinal-designate has even gone so far as to admit to the Associated Press July 10 that he made mistakes in his handling of the Fr. Lorenzo case. “Today I would certainly act very differently and certainly my performance was insufficient,” he told the AP after Mass.
Fernández argued that the procedures for responding to allegations of abuse committed by clergy “were less clear” at the time. “With everything I say it is clear that I did not act in the best way.”
He added that he told Pope Francis about the criticism received regarding the case, with the Pope reportedly replying “You explain reality as it was.”
Doyle in turn argued that though Fernández “declares himself bewildered, but he is a sophisticated and educated man,” whose “claims of ignorance are not credible.”
Her consternation has been echoed by numerous Catholics online, who have expressed their consternation at Fernández being picked to lead the Church’s response to sexual abuse. However, very little looks likely to prevent his accession to the position, or to cause the Pope to reverse his decision.