VATICAN CITY (AP) — When Pope Benedict XVI announced last month he was transferring his respected sex crimes prosecutor to Malta to become a bishop, Vatican watchers immediately questioned whether the Holy See's tough line on clerical abuse was going soft — and if another outspoken cleric was being punished for doing his job too well.
After all, several senior Vatican officials who ran afoul of the Vatican's entrenched ways have recently been transferred in face-saving "promote and remove" moves as the Vatican deals with the fallout from a high-profile criminal trial over leaked papal documents, a mixed report card on its financial transparency and its controversial crackdown on American nuns.
But in an interview on the eve of his departure, Bishop-elect Charles Scicluna insisted he wasn't the latest casualty in the Vatican's turf battles and Machiavellian personnel intrigues. Rather, he said, his promotion to auxiliary bishop in his native Malta was simply that — "a very good" promotion — and more critically, that his hardline stance against sex abuse would remain because it's Benedict's stance as well.
"This is policy," he told The Associated Press. "It's not Scicluna. It's the pope. And this will remain."
Besides, he said laughing over tea at a cafe on Rome's posh Piazza Farnese, "If you want to silence someone, you don't make him a bishop."
Scicluna was named the Vatican's promoter of justice in 2002, a year after then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pushed through church legislation requiring bishops to send all credible abuse allegations to his office for review and instructions on how to proceed.
Ratzinger, now pope, took over after realizing that bishops were simply moving abusive priests from parish to parish rather than prosecuting them under church law, and would continue to do so unless Rome intervened.
The year Scicluna joined Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the priest sex abuse scandal exploded in the United States, and his office was inundated with what he has called a "tsunami" of cases. The scandal erupted anew in 2010 in Europe, forcing the Vatican to finally tell bishops to report such crimes to police. And it has ignited in Australia this month, with the prime minister ordering a federal inquiry following a string of accusations against priests and allegations of Catholic cover-up.
In his decade on the job, Scicluna became something of the face of the Holy See's efforts to show it was serious about ending decades of sex crimes and cover-up by the church hierarchy. Short, round and affable, with tiny hands and a garrulous laugh, Scicluna, 53, didn't speak out frequently, since much of his work was done behind closed doors, covered by pontifical secret.
But when he did, it carried weight.
"Scicluna embodied the zero-tolerance line on sex abuse," veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli wrote recently.
His actions, too, often spoke louder than words.
"Scicluna did a remarkable job," said Juan Vaca, a former priest who was the first abuse victim Scicluna interviewed in the long-delayed investigation of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the once-exalted founder of the now-disgraced Legion of Christ religious order. In the years that followed Maciel's church condemnation, "he continued to prosecute other similar cases with the same integrity," Vaca told AP.
Scicluna insisted he not only will continue to work with the Holy See on abuse issues, but will do so now wielding the authority of a bishop, a job he considers his vocation after marking his first quarter-century as a priest last year.
"So I can tell bishops to listen to me now as a fellow bishop. That gives me in the Roman Catholic Church a qualitative leap into what I say." he said.
And he still has plenty to say.
Take for example, the case of Lincoln, Nebraska, where outgoing Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz refused for a decade to participate in the national audits of child protection programs that are at the core of the toughened U.S. abuse prevention policy enacted in 2002. Bruskewitz argued the lay board overseeing the audits had no authority in his diocese.
His successor, Bishop James Conley, will be installed next week.
"I would consider it highly imprudent on a bishop to move away from what the conference of bishops is suggesting with the help of the Holy See," Scicluna warned. Asked if he was referring to Nebraska's new bishop, Scicluna replied sternly: "I know what I'm saying."
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