Boston priest tapped by Vatican to be chief sex-abuse prosecutor

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday appointed a Boston canon lawyer to be the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sex crimes against minors.

The Rev. Robert W. Oliver, 52, will become Promoter of Justice—akin to a prosecutor in the American legal system—for the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office charged with protecting Catholic doctrine. It handles all serious crimes against the church, including the sexual abuse of children.

Oliver has served as judge and promoter of justice in the archdiocesan tribunal, which is still struggling to adjudicate a backlog of sexual abuse cases against priests. More than a dozen have been languishing since 2004 or earlier.

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He appears to have handled some sexual abuse cases against priests during the tenure of Cardinal Bernard M. Law, who resigned in disgrace for his role in the sexual abuse crisis that erupted in Boston in 2002. It is not clear what his roles were in the archdiocesan tribunal under Law or how the cases he handled were resolved.

Oliver has also advised Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley on a variety of issues, including pastoral planning, and he was a longtime professor of theology and canon law at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, the archdiocese’s main training ground for priests. This past year he served as a visiting professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“It is with deep humility and gratitude that I received the news that the Holy Father is entrusting me with this service to the Church,” Oliver said in a statement issued by the archdiocese. “I wish to express my sincere gratitude for their confidence and support.”

O’Malley called Oliver a “gifted priest . . . a distinguished canon lawyer who brings the requisite experience and an understanding of the importance of this office within the life of the Church. We assure him of our prayers and our support for this important ministry.”

Terence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, referred questions to the Vatican. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press secretary, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

The Congregation of the Faith is the powerful Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who is now pope – in 2002, when the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston. It was deluged with sexual abuse cases from around the world in the years following that time. Oliver succeeds Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who recently was named auxiliary bishop in Malta.

Sexual abuse cases now make up the majority of cases handled by the congregation, but it also deals with other serious crimes, including desecration of the eucharist, violation of the seal of confession, heresy and schism.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Oliver attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1982. He earned advanced degrees in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before earning a degree.

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