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a rebuke for Schönborn, a revival for Sodano

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 30, 2010

The news stories have been flowing out of Rome in such a torrent this week, I am only now finding the time to comment on Monday’s remarkable report about the Pope’s meeting with Cardinal Schönborn.

Never before, in more than 25 years of covering Catholic news, had I seen the Vatican administer a public rebuke to a cardinal. The facts that Cardinal Schönborn is one of the most prominent prelates in Europe, as well as a student, friend, and ally of the Pope, make the story all the more extraordinary.

Cardinal Schönborn brought the problem upon himself, with his statements criticizing Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Criticism of a Vatican Secretary of State inevitably reflects on the Pope to whom he was responsible. By suggesting that Cardinal Sodano resisted efforts to address the sex-abuse scandal, Cardinal Schönborn was indirectly implying that Pope John Paul II was not sufficiently vigilant in controlling his top lieutenant.

No doubt Cardinal Sodano made that point—probably quite forcefully and repeatedly, albeit quietly, and behind the scenes—in response to Cardinal Schönborn’s criticism. No one is more skillful than the former Secretary of State in handling the internal politics of the Vatican. In the weeks that have passed since Schönborn let slip those imprudent remarks, Sodano doubtless persuaded his allies, and ultimately the Pope, that the criticism could not stand unchallenged without compromising the legacy of John Paul II and perhaps even of Pope Benedict as well.

So the Pope called Cardinal Schönborn on the carpet—it is significant the Cardinal Sodano joined in the conversation as well—and the Vatican issued a “clarification” of the Austrian cardinal’s remarks. Without explicitly addressing the content of Cardinal Schönborn’s criticisms, the Vatican statement released after the meeting rightly slapped the wrist of the Austrian prelate for creating the fuss. 

According to that Vatican statement, Cardinal Schönborn wanted to clarify his remarks. Yet the Austrian cardinal was not allowed to make his own apologies, to issue his own statement, to face questions from the press by himself. The Vatican was taking no chances with a prelate who had already committed a serious gaffe. The June 28 statement was released by the Vatican press office—which is controlled by the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Sodano’s old fiefdom.

In that fateful May session with reporters in Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn was driving home a point that most veteran Vatican reporters already understand: that during the pontificate of John Paul II, Cardinal Sodano was often at odds with then-Cardinal Ratzinger over the handling of sex-abuse complaints. The future Pontiff was pressing to root out the corruption, while the Secretary of State was defending the status quo. By criticizing Sodano, the Austrian prelate obviously intended to defend the Pope, especially in his handling of sex-abuse complaints.

The move backfired badly. Six weeks later the Pope has endorsed a strong statement of support to Cardinal Sodano. Nearly four years after he finally stepped down from his post as Secretary of State after 15 years in that powerful post, Cardinal Sodano proved that he still carries considerable weight at the Vatican. More weight, certainly, than the Archbishop of Vienna. More weight, perhaps, than he had before this storm arose. 

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jul. 02, 2010 6:19 PM ET USA

    The responsibility for the sex abuse crisis belongs to the bishops of the 60s and 70s in the U.S. and elsewhere who not only did not adequately discipline the offenders but did not keep the Holy See fully informed of the scope of the abuse. How can any pope be held accountable for crimes that went largely unreported?

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Jul. 01, 2010 11:21 AM ET USA

    Yes, is it true?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 01, 2010 10:41 AM ET USA

    The Vatican rarely publicly rebukes ANYBODY and that for just about anything..., excepting of course for defying the elitist "brotherhood" which I strongly believe in their mind constitutes "unity.." That as a whole the sex-abuse scandal was handled poorly, including at the level of the Vatican, is a given.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jun. 30, 2010 8:22 PM ET USA

    But what Cardinal Schönborn stated: was it true? Is that an important question? Wasn't the scandal due, in no small part, to carelessness (even indifference) about the truth?

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