An Austrian cardinal’s unprecedented attacks on Pope John Paul II’s former deputy is threatening to bring down one of the late pontiff’s closest aides and drag the office he once ran into disrepute.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, last week accused Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Vatican secretary of state (essentially the Vatican prime minister) of obstructing a probe into Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, the former archbishop of Vienna, who was charged with committing sexual abuse crimes in 1995. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had pushed for an investigation, but Sodano stopped him.
Schoenborn also censured Sodano last week for causing “massive harm” to sexual abuse victims by dismissing criticism of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of clerical abuse when he was a cardinal as “petty gossip” at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said Sodano’s comments “were certainly not the wisest” and stressed that Benedict XVI never asked for such a message of support.
The archbishop of Vienna’s criticisms, unprecedented among cardinals, come on top of reports that Sodano stalled an investigation into the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the disgraced and deceased founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a Catholic order, who was found last year to have abused seminarians and fathered several children by mistresses. Maciel also is alleged to have bribed some Vatican officials to extract special favors for his order.
A wily Vatican diplomat from Piedmont in northern Italy, Sodano, 82, was very influential during John Paul II’s papacy and remains so today as dean of the College of Cardinals, a position that requires convening and chairing the conclave to elect the next Pope.
Therefore, some in the Vatican have been particularly uneasy with the attack.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, a former senior Roman Curia official, called Schoenborn’s remarks “inopportune” and said he should have raised his concerns privately rather than risk “stirring up a hornet’s nest.” By going public, he said it gave “our enemies the idea of a church torn by controversy, which does not exist whatsoever.”
Yet such accusations are useful in shedding more light on the Vatican under John Paul II. Administering the Curia was never one of the late pontiff’s strong points, something he himself admitted. He preferred to deal with the wider church, traveling the world and evangelizing.
Left very much to their own devices, Vatican officials grouped together into Italian and Polish cliques, ran the Vatican with a good deal of autonomy and, it now seems, withheld very sensitive information from John Paul II.
But Sodano’s motives for covering up these cases remain a mystery. Was it to prevent Catholics from being scandalized, in common with the other bishops who covered up abuses (even one of Maciel’s victims thought it better to keep quiet than risk millions losing their faith)? Was he convinced at the time that the allegations against Groer and Maciel were false? Or were other considerations involved?
It’s not clear why he offered that strange message of support to Benedict on Easter Sunday. Was it, as some in the Vatican have speculated, an attempt to circle the wagons or to cover his own back?
Faced with all these questions, many believe Sodano would be wise to come clean. Doing so would salvage not only his reputation but also that of the Vatican, where most staffers are both upstanding and honorable.
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