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Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet has been promoted to head the powerful Congregations for Bishops, which vets bishop appointments around the world. ((Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press))

Cardinal Marc Ouellet says he is grateful for the new assignment he has received from the Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI has named the Quebec cardinal chief of the Vatican's powerful Congregations for Bishops, which vets bishop appointments around the world.

Ouellet, 66, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that he accepts the post with gratitude, but also with a sense of fear at the huge responsibility that comes with the job.

"I'm glad to serve the Holy Father in this capacity ... and in order to become more competent at the service of the bishops, I will rely on the prayers of the faithful," the cardinal said.

Ouellet alluded to "difficult situations" that could arise in his new position, referring obliquely to the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

With his voice wavering with emotion, Ouellet told media that he was sad to be leaving the Quebec Diocese, which he's been a part of since November 2002.

Ouellet is currently the archbishop of Quebec and the Roman Catholic Primate of Canada, the church's top official in the country.

Centre of controversy

Ouellet has been involved in controversy in the past few months.

Earlier in June, a victims' group said Ouellet had refused to apologize for crimes committed within the church.

The L'Association des Victimes de Prêtres, a group that helps victims of sexually abusive priests in Quebec, had said Ouellet's then-rumoured promotion would be unmerited.

Ouellet was also at the centre of controversy over comments he made about abortion being an unjustifiable moral crime, even in cases of rape.

The remark was criticized by feminist groups and politicians in Ottawa and Quebec.

The cardinal said Wednesday that he was not surprised by the anger his remarks provoked, saying he was trying to give an example.

Top positions shuffled

Ouellet succeeds Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 76, who has retired after nearly a decade in the post.

Ouellet's promotion is part of a shuffle of the Vatican's top positions in what is being seen as an acknowledgment that efforts to reinvigorate Christianity in Europe need a boost.

The announcement also says Msgr. Rino Fisichella has been tapped to head a new Vatican office to fight secularization and re-evangelize the West. Fisichella has been head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Vatican's top bioethics official.