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."
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the online research center BishopAccountability.org, praised Scicluna for such tough talk and for finally bringing down Maciel. But she added: "Only in an institution as defensive and resistant to reform as the Vatican could Scicluna's modest stands for justice be seen as bold."
In fact, in recent years, civil law has begun going where the Vatican has so far refused, prosecuting bishops and high-ranking church officials for covering up the crimes of the priests in their care and failing to report suspected abuse to police.
In Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted in June of endangering children for having helped move predators around, the first U.S. church official to be so convicted. In September, Kansas City, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse after one of his priests was caught with child pornography.
"These civil cases send a very important message," Scicluna said. "This is part of the brief of every bishop. This is part of the oath that we take, that we be stewards and we protect the flock."
Yet at last week's national meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, church leaders made no public comment on Finn's failure to follow the bishops' own policy on reporting suspected child abuse to civil authorities. He remains a bishop and participated fully in the meeting. Also attending was Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired as archbishop of Philadelphia in disgrace after failing to fix an archdiocese that was faulted by the same grand jury indictment that accused Lynn of endangering children.
Scicluna acknowledged that the pope has yet to discipline any bishop for negligence in handling an abuse case. While Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in 2002 after the abuse scandal erupted in his Boston archdiocese, he wasn't sanctioned and was in fact named archpriest of one of the Vatican's pre-eminent Rome basilicas — a cushy promotion to his critics.
Church law provides for bishops to be punished for negligence, and in the past year Benedict has forcibly removed a handful of bishops for mismanagement and doctrinal dissent in a hint that he may be more willing than ever to get rid of problem bishops. The issue is theologically problematic, though, because bishops are considered by divine right to be the stewards of their dioceses.
"The rules are there but they need to be applied" when it comes to disciplining bishops who botch abuse cases, Scicluna said. "People make mistakes. They need to repent and change their ways. But if they are not able to repent and change their ways, they should not be bishops."
In a bid to compel bishops to do the right thing, Scicluna's office last year gave bishops' conferences a one-year deadline to draft guidelines to protect children and better screen priests to prevent pedophiles from being ordained. Many countries, including the U.S., Ireland and Germany, had already developed tough guidelines but much of the developing world and even Italy hadn't.
By the May deadline, only half the bishops' conferences had responded. Scicluna said the figure now stood at 80 percent, with Africa dragging down the total.
Scicluna blamed cultural differences as the core problem in Africa, including different perceptions of what constitutes abuse and when a child is no longer a minor. Church law sets the age at 18; some African cultures consider a girl to be a woman at age 14 or 15, and therefore able to consent to sex.
Despite the problems, Scicluna says he considers an 80 percent response rate a "success story" that should be shared beyond the church, citing the recent sex abuse scandals at the BBC and the Boy Scouts of America as evidence that the problem isn't the church's alone.
He acknowledged, though, that the key is now for church leaders to implement the guidelines they have established.
"This is not 'mission accomplished,'" Scicluna said. "This is a growing challenge for the church, because sin will always be with us and also crime. And if we lower our guard, we are not being stewards."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield