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This week: the stories within the stories

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2020

Things have been relatively quiet in the Catholic news world this week: no new bombshells; no new scandals. But let me call your attention to a few headline stories that carry more importance than you might realize.

  • Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France won an appeals-court decision overturning his conviction (in March of last year) for failing to report a sex-abuse complaint. The abuse had occurred years ago, before Cardinal Barbarin arrived in Lyon, and the appeals court found no evidence that the cardinal had intended a cover-up. Still Cardinal Barbarin realizes that his vindication is not complete. To the French public, and especially the French media, he remains the public face of the abuse scandal. That’s not fair, because—again—it was an earlier archbishop who allowed a notorious priest to remain in ministry; Cardinal Barbarin only learned about the problem much later. Still he faces enormous hostility, and even if that hostility is misdirected, it is serious enough to compromise his leadership. Moreover, the latest decision will probably be appealed, leaving the cardinal’s fate uncertain for months to come. So the cardinal has renewed his offer to resign. Pope Francis now must make a decision that could apply to other accused prelates: others who, while they have not been proven guilty of misconduct, are so widely believed to be guilty that their credibility is damaged.
  • The German bishops are embarking on their “synodal path,” which the secretary of their episcopal conference describes as “ embarking on a new path of our own.” What does that mean in practice? The working documents that German Church leaders will discuss include recommendations of major changes in Church teaching on hot-button issues including contraception, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. If the German bishops issue their own statements on those issues, and their statements clash with the teachings of the universal Church, the threat of outright schism looms.
  • Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re was elected dean of the College of Cardinals, succeeding Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who finally stepped down at the age of 92. But it might prove more important that Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, currently the prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, was chosen as vice-dean. Let me explain.
    The office of the dean is mostly ceremonial, except during a papal conclave, when the dean takes on important tasks: summoning the cardinals to Rome, presiding over meetings before the conclave, and organizing the conclave itself. However, only cardinals under the age of 80 can actually enter the conclave, and Cardinal Re is already 86. So if a conclave were to occur in the near future, it would be Cardinal Sandri, as vice-dean, who would preside.
    Why is that significant? Long-time CWN readers will recall that I often expressed misgivings about the role that Cardinal Sodano would play, as dean, in a papal transition, since he has been widely associated with the protection of bishops and priests accused of abuse—most notably the late Father Marcial Maciel, the now-notorious founder of the Legion of Christ. Now Cardinal Sodano has exited the stage (although I have no doubt that he still exercises considerable clout behind the scenes). But what was Cardinal Sandri doing in the crucial period from 2000 to 2003, when Maciel’s allies at the Vatican were fending off calls for an investigation of his affairs? He was the sostituto in the Secretary of State, responsible for handling all the important correspondence within the Roman Curia—including memos about the Maciel case. Even before that, he was appointed by Cardinal Sodano as apostolic nuncio in Mexico, to replace a papal envoy who had been clamoring for action against Maciel. So the questions that might have been asked about Cardinal Sodano can now be asked about Cardinal Sandri, and those questions will linger over the next conclave.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: garedawg - Feb. 02, 2020 11:34 PM ET USA

    If he's a young pope, he'd better be a good one. At least electing old popes is one way to have term limits.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Jan. 31, 2020 11:46 PM ET USA

    The more you read and hear about the Vatican workings, the more it sounds like the mafia. So much dirt and not a big enough broom. We need a strong Pope and a young one. St Michael protect us.