Cardinals are supposed to be the papacy’s last line of defense, which means that conflicts between cardinals – especially in public, and especially over something as explosive as the sexual abuse crisis – are guaranteed to get the pope’s attention.
This morning, Pope Benedict XVI essentially presided over a kiss-and-make-up session between two Princes of the Church: Cardinals Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the former Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II.
The pope and the two contending prelates were joined by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the current Secretary of State.
The Vatican issued an usually detailed statement in the wake of the meeting, but at first blush, it’s not clear whether the most serious substantive issue in Schönborn’s criticism of Sodano was resolved – or, for that matter, even addressed.
Against the backdrop of the sexual abuse crisis in Europe this spring, which at times engulfed the papacy of Benedict XVI, Schönborn met with Austrian journalists in late April. Debate still swirls about whether Schönborn thought he was off the record during that session, but nobody denies that he made two critical remarks about Sodano.
Those comments became a “shot heard ‘round the world,” attracting wide attention in the global media, and setting the table for this morning's tête-à-tête.
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First, Schönborn said that Sodano blocked an investigation of sexual abuse claims against the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna. Groër, who died in 2003, had been accused of abuse by several former novice monks at the Benedictine abbey in Austria where he once served as abbot. The charges against Groër became public in 1995, producing a major crisis in the Austrian church. Three years later, Schönborn led a group of Austrian bishops who announced they were “morally certain” of Groër’s guilt.
Second, Schönborn said that comments by Sodano during the Vatican’s Easter Sunday Mass, in which Sodano compared attacks on Pope Benedict XVI for his handling of the crisis to “petty gossip,” had done “massive harm” to victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy.
This morning’s Vatican statement addressed the latter point head-on, insisting that Sodano had been misunderstood. He was quoting from the pope’s Palm Sunday homily, the statement said, and by “petty gossip” he didn’t mean the demands of sex abuse victims for justice, but rather the “prevalent opinions” of the day.
Sodano, according to the statement, has the “same feelings of compassion" for victims, and of "condemnation of evil,” as Benedict XVI.
Yet on the first point, regarding Groër -- which, arguably, is by far the more serious issue -- the statement was strikingly reticent. It restricted itself to pointing out that it’s uniquely up to the pope to handle accusations against a cardinal, although others may “consult.”
That language will likely be taken as a rebuke to Schönborn, suggesting that if another cardinal needs to be corrected, that's the pope's job and not his. (On the other hand, it could also be read as an implicit acknowledgment that if the ball was dropped on Groër, it was John Paul II, not Sodano, who dropped it.)
In any case, the notable thing about the statement is that there was no attempt to deny Schönborn’s core assertion: That Sodano was chief among the “consulters” who opposed taking action against Groër.
At least in the short run, therefore, this morning’s meeting may have papered over the differences between Schönborn and Sodano, but it probably won’t do much to recalibrate the debate over Sodano’s role in the sexual abuse crisis during the John Paul years. That’s especially probable given that Sodano has also been accused of complicity in Vatican inaction against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
Nor, ultimately, does this morning’s “clarification” seem to reorient what looms as the $64,000 question about recent Vatican history: Do the Groër and Maciel cases, including Sodano’s role in them, and the broader pathology of the sexual abuse crisis, taint the legacy of John Paul II?
That, to be sure, is a question that a polite handshake among cardinals can’t really resolve.