Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday appointed a Boston canon lawyer with extensive experience handling sexual abuse complaints to be the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sex crimes against minors.
The Rev. Robert W. Oliver, 52, will become promoter of justice — a title akin to prosecutor in the American legal system — for the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office charged with protecting church doctrine. It oversees all serious crimes against the church, including the sexual abuse of children by priests.
Oliver is a longtime professor of theology and canon law who since 2002 has served in a variety of capacities in the church’s internal legal system, or canon law system, in Boston – as judge, promoter of justice, chief of investigations, and member of the archdiocesan review board that handles sexual abuse complaints.
After the abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, Oliver also helped train officials in dioceses across the nation in how to implement the major reform imposed by US bishops in 2003.
He also assists the vicar general of the archdiocese, Bishop-elect Robert P. Deeley, on matters related to church,, or canon, law.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that any Boston priest who served under Cardinal Bernard F. Law and did not overtly call for his ouster lacks credibility with abuse victims.
In Oliver’s appointment, he said, the Vatican was “rubbing salt into the wounds” of victims.
“Given how extensive clergy sex crimes and cover-ups have been in Boston, it’s hard to imagine that any priest, but especially a canon lawyer, wouldn’t have . . . some involvement in ignoring or hiding them,” he said.
Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Oliver began his canon law work for the archdiocese in the fall of 2002, shortly before Law resigned, and did no legal work of significance for the archdiocese under Law’s tenure.
“Any attacks on Father Oliver’s distinguished track record of service to the church and his many contributions to the response to clergy sexual abuse are unfounded and just plain wrong,” he said.
“He is a good and decent priest who is widely viewed as just, competent, and committed to the truth.”
Oliver could not be reached for an interview yesterday. In a statement provided by the archdiocese, he called the appointment inspirational and challenging and asked for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
O’Malley, in a statement, called Oliver a “gifted priest and . . . a distinguished canon lawyer who brings the requisite experience and an understanding of the importance of this office within the life of the Church.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press secretary, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The Boston tribunal, as the archdiocesan court is known, is still struggling to adjudicate a backlog of sexual abuse cases against priests. Fifteen cases have been languishing since 2004 or earlier.
Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented many sexual abuse victims in Boston, said he wondered whether Oliver’s departure would further delay some of those cases.
“Closure in these cases is such an important part of the healing process for sexual abuse victims,” he said.
Donilon said concluding the cases was a church priority. “Closure and the care of survivors and their families is important to the cardinal,” he said.
The vast majority of 250 or so abuse cases in Boston involved priests who were dead, from religious orders or members of another archdiocese, and so outside the archdiocese’s jurisdiction. The tribunal has resolved more than 50 cases administratively.
Just three cases have gone to full trials since 2002; in each case, the Boston tribunal exonerated the priest involved, according to the archdiocese.
When the abuse scandal broke in 2002, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict. It was deluged with sexual abuse cases from the United States and, eventually, around the world.
Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law who has written extensively about the abuse crisis, said the congregation has eliminated a backlog of abuse cases with the help of additional lawyers, including Deeley, who is now the vicar general of Boston.
As its chief prosecutor, Oliver succeeds Monsignor Charles Scicluna, named auxiliary bishop in Malta.
“I think Monsignor Scicluna set a pretty high bar through the 12 years of work he did, and his real devotion to the cause of making sure abusive priests did not remain in ministry,” Cafardi said.
Sexual abuse cases still make up the majority of cases handled by the congregation today, but the department also handles other serious crimes against the church., including desecration of the eucharist, violation of the seal of confession, heresy and schism.
A native of Bay Shore, N.Y. on Long Island, Oliver attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1982. He earned advanced degrees in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before he became a priest in 2000.
He is a member of the Brotherhood of Hope, an association of brothers and priests, the archdiocese said.
A professor of theology and canon law at the archdiocese’s main training ground for priests, St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, from 1997 to 2010, Oliver served this past year as a visiting professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
He has also served as a top adviser to Deeley on canonical issues, including those involved with a plan to reorganize the archdiocese.
“It will be tough to lose him for his work in Boston because he’s so respected among priests,” said Monsignor William Fay, a leader in the planning effort. “But to know he’ll be doing work that will help so many people within life of church — that’s a great thing.”
Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.