MDINA, Malta — His missions begin with a phone call from the pope. “Do me a favor,” Pope Francis tends to say, and then Archbishop Charles Scicluna steels himself, packs his bags and books a flight to another country where something terrible has happened.
Within a church besieged by clerical abuse cases, Scicluna, 59, has become the Vatican’s emergency investigator — a priest-and-lawyer-turned-sex-crimes specialist who is dispatched to scandal zones.
“Nothing prepares you for the wounds,” Scicluna said. “You don’t get used to it.”
He is sent to places where cardinals or bishops are accused of committing abuse; where officials are suspected of burying evidence or systematically ignoring victims; where the church has profoundly failed and squandered trust. Over the past decade-and-a-half, he has led at least four major investigations on four separate continents, interviewing hundreds of victims, during feverish days he likens to an “ant working in summer.”
For most of that time, he has operated out of public view, refusing to speak about cases, returning to Rome from his missions with dossiers meant for the eyes of the pope. But recently, with the church facing outside pressure to reform, Scicluna was vaulted by Francis into a broad and public role. The archbishop helped to plan a major anti-abuse summit in February and has worked on subsequent reforms. He also regularly appears at news conferences to explain Vatican thinking.
As the Roman Catholic Church attempts to prove that it can credibly police itself, it is presenting Scicluna as an example of how rigorous and caring it can be.
In interviews in his home country of Malta and inside the Vatican — where documents on the table are labeled in Latin “secreta” — Scicluna said he “hoped and prayed” that the institution, during his lifetime, can “become an example of best practices” for responding to and preventing abuse.
“But we will not solve the problem,” he said, calling abuse a pervasive global issue that goes beyond the church. “This will not go away.”
Scicluna has developed a reputation — even among some wary abuse victims and advocates — as one of the rare Vatican officials who appreciates the seriousness and scale of the church’s abuse crisis. Victims say Scicluna presents himself as a listener and fact-finder, sensitive but also meticulous in pinning down dates and specifics.
“He cared. It mattered to him,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a whistleblowing Chilean abuse victim now living in the United States, who met with Scicluna last year. Cruz had volunteered to speak with Scicluna via Skype. Instead, Scicluna flew to New York and spoke with Cruz for four hours.
“I’ve been telling my story and dealing with church officials forever,” Cruz said. “It was the first time I felt empathy.”
In New York, Scicluna wept several times while listening to Cruz, and he began to feel ill that night. Several days later, after having flown to Chile, he was in a Santiago hospital, having his gallbladder removed. Scicluna wonders whether it was somehow brought on by what he was hearing.
“Maybe it was psychosomatic,” he said. “I don’t know.”
But Scicluna is also fully a man of the institution, not a radical.
He points to past papal quotes as guiding wisdom for handling the crisis. He chides the church gently, prescribing reforms for handling complaints, urging prelates to listen more openly to victims. He speaks about the importance of transparency and encourages church officials to cooperate with civil authorities, but his own investigations are fully in-house, and not even summaries of his findings are made public.
He has carried out special investigations on behalf of both Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and he considers his missions a “service” for the pontiff.
“You have your own ideas of how things should proceed,” Scicluna said. “But you know that you are not the owner of what you are doing.”
Scicluna serves as the archbishop of Malta and as a top official within the church’s disciplinary body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is also a self-described bookish “nerd,” who holds both civil and canon law degrees. At barely 5 feet tall, he says he struggles to find clothes that fit properly. In Malta, he eschews the grand residence offered to the archbishop and instead lives in a ground-floor apartment with his 83-year-old mother. He spends one week a month in Rome.
When he arrived in the Vatican in the mid-1990s, he knew barely a word of sexual jargon. He said he became versed in clerical abuse only because the church was confronting a “tsunami” and needed help.
In 2002, just as abuse by clergy was emerging as a major story in the United States, Scicluna was elevated by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict, to be the top prosecutor inside the Holy See’s powerful and opaque doctrinal office. Working from inside the city-state, Scicluna heard details about thousands of cases, mostly accusations against diocesan priests. But it was in the higher-magnitude cases — involving mass-scale abuse, or particularly powerful figures — where the church especially struggled, in large part because bishops and cardinals are answerable only to the pope.
So Scicluna started making the special trips.
He first went to Mexico and the United States in 2005, documenting the serial abuse of Marcial Maciel, the charismatic founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ whose work had been repeatedly praised by Pope John Paul II.
Scicluna traveled to Syria in 2008 to investigate a bishop. He was ordered to Scotland in 2014 in the aftermath of abuse claims against Cardinal Keith O’Brien. All of those investigations led to some form of church punishment.
Scicluna has been confronted with various theories about the causes of abuse within the Catholic Church.
He dismisses the popular notion that the priestly celibacy requirement leads to a culture of sexual secrecy, because it gives even priests who have consensual relationships something to hide. But he does say that some clerics fail to develop mature ways to show affection, and then feel “protected in the status and the ritual” of the priesthood.
For him, the more difficult question — one that he is cautious about addressing — is what to make of data showing that clerical abuse victims are predominantly male, and often teenagers.
“People invariably make the link with same-sex attractions,” Scicluna said. Vatican traditionalists argue that the hidden homosexuality of some priests is a major underlying reason for the abuse crisis. Scicluna has been prodded several times by journalists from conservative Catholic outlets to agree, but he has always stopped short. Studies have found no correlation between sexual orientation and abuse.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint only one set of causes,” Scicluna says. “This cannot be a judgment about a category of people.”
Scicluna’s most recent mission was perhaps his most complicated. The Chilean church had been ravaged by systemic clerical abuse, and Francis, during a January 2018 trip to South America, created fury by defending a bishop, Juan Barros, widely considered to have helped protect a notorious predator priest. For more than a week, the backlash continued. Francis told Scicluna to head for Chile.
Scicluna and an assistant, Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu, interviewed Cruz in New York and then nearly five-dozen more victims in Chile. Scicluna tried to keep the meetings efficient — most no more than an hour. He asked victims to pre-write their stories for his records. When Scicluna went to the hospital for his surgery, Bertomeu took the lead. They returned after 10 days and handed more than 2,000 pages to the pope.
Francis has since dramatically reversed his position on Chile, apologizing for “grave errors,” inviting three Chilean abuse survivors to the Vatican, and then calling Chile’s 34 bishops to Rome, where each submitted a letter of resignation. (Francis has accepted more than a half-dozen.)
“Scicluna’s role in Chile was to lend his prestige and allow the Holy Father to reverse himself almost 180 degrees,” said the Rev. Raymond de Souza, a Canadian priest and church commentator.
But in the aftermath of that reversal, one of the victims who met with Scicluna has wondered about how much of the problem has really been solved. The church had been warned for years about the abuse in Chile. Cruz had written a book about his experiences, published in 2014. Politicians and demonstrators had protested the church’s inaction, as well as Francis’s 2015 decision to promote Barros to a new post. Whenever the church’s next major investigation came, would it be launched too late as well?
“The illness is in the roots of the church,” said James Hamilton, a surgeon who was abused into adulthood by now-defrocked priest Fernando Karadima and has spent 15 years in therapy. “The time to make a cut on the arm or the leg, it passed.” Within that system, Hamilton said, “Scicluna is just one person. He’s nothing.”
Jason Berry, a reporter and author who has covered sexual abuse for decades, said the need for an investigator like Scicluna shows the church is in a state of flux, looking for ad hoc solutions after failures.
“I view what Scicluna is doing as a transitional process,” Berry said. “But an instrumental one, to say the least.”
Scicluna, for his part, said he is “available” if needed to launch future investigations.
“Probably I will do it again,” he said, “by mandate of the Holy Father.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.