A bishop accountability group that tracks sexual abuse in the Catholic Church released a statement July 1 voicing serious concerns about Pope Francis’ new appointment of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández to head the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The group keeps an online database of sexual abuse by clergy on its website, BishopAccountability.org.

In its statement, written by co-director Anne Barrett Doyle, the group called Fernández’s appointment “a baffling and troubling choice” for a position that “will have immense power, especially when it comes to judging and punishing priests who abuse children.”

Fernández, who is almost 61, has served as the archbishop of La Plata, Argentina, since 2018.

A spokesperson for Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Vatican’s newly appointed head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded to accusations that he has been soft on sex abusers by firmly denying the allegations.

In an email to CNA, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of La Plata, Argentina, said that “the archbishop never expressed that he did not believe them [the victims], beyond what some blogs that issue free opinions may have said.”

“When asked by the journalists, the archbishop clearly responded that ‘when someone presents an accusation of this type, in principle, THEY ARE ALWAYS BELIEVED, but beyond that, an investigation and due process are necessary because the legislation itself establishes it,’” the spokesperson wrote.

Pope Francis announced Fernández’s appointment to the influential dicastery on July 1. A longtime personal theologian and ghostwriter for the pope, Fernández is expected to take up his new post in mid-September.

“As the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, I entrust to you a task that I consider very valuable,” Pope Francis wrote in a July 1 letter to Fernández. “I ask you as prefect to dedicate your personal commitment in a more direct way to the main purpose of the dicastery, which is ‘guarding the faith.’”

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Doyle said that “Fernández’ recent handling of a clergy sex abuse case in his home archdiocese of La Plata raises great concern.”

According to Doyle, Fernández “publicly defended” and supported La Plata priest Father Eduardo Lorenzo in the face of five sex abuse allegations in 2019. Doyle said that Fernandez continued to stand by Lorenzo even after an arrest warrant was issued and the priest committed suicide.

“In his response to allegations,” Doyle said that Fernández “stoutly supported the accused priest and refused to believe the victims. Showing disregard for the safety of children, Fernández kept the priest at his parish post even as more victims came forward.”

“For his handling of this case, Fernández should have been investigated, not promoted to one of the highest posts in the global Church,” Doyle said. “Nothing about his performance suggests he is fit to lead the pope’s battle against abuse and cover-up.”

Doyle is especially concerned because part of Fernández’s responsibilities as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith will be responding to the abuse of minors.

“Fernández will have immense power, especially when it comes to judging and punishing priests who abuse children,” Doyle said. “It will be up to Fernández to implement and enforce [the] pope’s zero tolerance pledge. To do this, he will need to make child protection and justice for victims his highest priority.”

Fernández is a controversial figure in the Church in Argentina, in part because of some of his past publications. The theologian has published more than 300 articles and books.

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The book commonly regarded as his most unusual is the 1995 work “Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing.” Regarding the book, Fernández explained that “in these pages I want to synthesize the popular feeling, what people feel when they think of a kiss, what they experience when they kiss ... So, trying to synthesize the immense richness of life, these pages emerged in favor of kissing. I hope that they help you kiss better, that they motivate you to release the best of yourself in a kiss.”

The book has disappeared from most official lists of Fernández’s works.