Pope replaces Vatican’s conservative doctrinal watchdog

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace during the Sunday Angelus prayer, on March 5, 2017 at St Peter's square in Vatican. / AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo PINTO

ROME — Pope Francis is replacing the Catholic Church’s conservative chief of doctrine, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, amid apparent tensions over the Pope’s efforts to open up church teaching and tackle a series of sex abuse scandals.

A Vatican statement released Saturday said the Pope thanked Muller at the conclusion of his five-year appointment as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ends Sunday.

Rather than being renewed in the role, Muller will be replaced by Monsignor Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, a Jesuit and current second-in-command for the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.

Muller, 69, a German, was appointed by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who himself once headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A conservative, Muller was widely seen to be resistant to Pope Francis’ attempt to open up the church’s teaching, particularly on the issue of allowing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Unusually, Muller gave a recent interview in which he said there should not be different interpretations of church teaching on the subject, putting him at odds with Francis’ thinking. The issue is one that divides liberals and conservatives in the church.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is also in charge of handling sex abuse cases involving the church.

Francis promised to tackle the crisis but has faced questions about a perceived lack of action.

Muller recently came under criticism by a prominent member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins, who claimed that his office refused to cooperate with the commission’s recommendations. Collins, an Irishwoman and abuse survivor, quit the commission in frustration over what she said was a failure to push for reforms.

Muller responded with a media interview in which he defended his office’s efforts.

Earlier this week, the abuse scandal reached the top levels of the Holy See when Cardinal George Pell, a senior adviser to Francis, said he was taking leave from the Vatican to fight historical sexual assault charges in his home country of Australia.

Pell, who’s considered the third-ranking official in the Holy See as its treasurer, has insisted he is innocent of the charges.

CNN’s Delia Gallagher reported from Rome, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Valentina Di Donato contributed to this report.