“Only the Pope can criticise a Cardinal.” Pope Benedict XVI Fr. Seán McDonagh.SSC


A well choreographed series of meetings between Pope  Benedict XVI and three cardinals on June 28th 2010, raised  serious doubts about whether Rome has the ability or courage to thoroughly investigate credible accusations which have been brought against senior Church figures.  Many people believed that in the wake of the strong language which the Pope addressed to the Irish bishops about honesty, transparency and accountability recently that the days of sweeping problems under the carpet was a thing of the past.[1]

The day began with a meeting between Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and the Pope. The website www.zenit.org chronicles the sequence of events at the Vatican that morning.[2] According to this source Cardinal Schonborn sought a meeting with the Pope to discuss the situation of the Church in Austria and to clarify some of his recent statements about the role of the former Secretary of State, Cardinal Angel Sodano in blocking an investigation into the sex abuse allegations which were made against his predecessor Cardinal Hans Herman Groer (Archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995), and the notorious paedophile,  Fr. Marchial Marciel Degollado the founder of the Legion of Christ.

In May 2010, Cardinal Schonborn told the Austrian new agency that Cardinal Sodano had persuaded the pope when he was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) not to investigate Cardinal Groer.  Not only did he accuse Cardinal Sodano of protecting Cardinal Groer, he also accused Cardinal Sodano of “massive harm” to victims of sex abuse by clergy with his Easter Sunday statement that dismissed the international criticism of the Catholic Church over the sex abuse scandal as “idle gossip.” The Cardinal ended his interview with the words, “the days of cover up are over.”[3]

Unfortunately, for  Cardinal Schonborn and the credibility of the Catholic Church, the June 28th 2010 meeting between the Pope and Cardinal points in the opposite direction.  Cardinal Schonborn’s clarification about the “exact sense of his recent statements” was simply a retraction.  But his humiliation did not end at that point.

The private meeting between the Pope and Cardinal was followed by a meeting between the Pope, Cardinal Schonborn, Cardinal Sodano and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone the current Secretary of State.  According to Gerry O’Connell, Rome Correspondent for The Universe, “sources in Rome say Cardinal Sodano and Bertone jointly insisted that the Pope should reprimand Schonborn for these accusations.”[4]

The Pope told him that “when it was a question of accusations against a cardinal, the competence belongs only to the Pope; other entities can have a consultative function, always with due respect to the persons.”[5] This seems to be a very strange and new doctrine which it has much more to do with current ecclesiastical politics than with Church order.  O’Connell reports that “Church sources expressed surprise at the statement, and recalled many instances in the recent past where cardinals have publicly criticised each other without any papal intervention.”[6]

This is not the first time that controversy has surrounded Cardinal Sodano. He was the papal nuncio in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet whose brutal regime killed or “disappeared” (desaparecidios ) thousands of people. Cardinal Sodano showed little sympathy or support for those who were promoting human rights and attempting to end the dictatorship.  He had a tense relationship with Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriquez, the Archbishop of Santiago, who worked tirelessly to protect innocent people.  Missionary have told me that when they attended a Mass for the “disappeared”  Cardinal Sodano regularly reprimanded their superior.

According to Jason Berry writing in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) it was while he was the nuncio in Chile that a friendship developed between Cardinal Sodano and Fr. Marciel.  Back in Rome as Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano supported the building of the Legion’s university, Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum where his nephew Andrea Sodano was chosen as a building consultant. Though the quality of his work was poor he was paid.[7] Berry also claims that “in 1998 when eight ex-Legionaries filed a canon law case to prosecute him in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s tribunal. For the next six years, Marciel had the staunch support of three pivotal figures: Sodanao; Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apoltolic Life and Msgr Stanislaw Dziwisz. Sodano pressured Ratizinger not to prosecute Maciel as NCR (National Catholic Reporter newspaper) previously reported. Ratzinger told a Mexican bishop that the Maciel case was a ‘delicate’ matter and questioned whether it would be ‘prudent’ to prosecute at that time.” [8]

These allegations are much more serious than criticism of Bishop Donal Murray by the Murphy tribunal.  Yet, he was forced to resign as bishop of Limerick.  In his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland Pope Benedict writes that he invited the Irish hierarchy to Rome to “give an account of their handling of these matters (abuse cases) in the past.”[9] But everyone must be held accountable, otherwise there would appear to be one law for the Irish and another one for high ecclesiastics in the Vatican.

In his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland the Pope bluntly tells the Irish Bishops that “only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of Irish people towards the Church.”[10] The Church in Rome needs to do the same: There is an urgent need for an independent, transparent and thorough investigation into who actually protected Cardinal Groer and Fr. Marciel,  Until this happens Pope Benedict’s own credibility will continue to be questioned.  As Cardinal Schonborn said before his volte-face, “the days of cover-up are over.”


[1] Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland,” Diocese of Meath, Lent 2010, pages 7 and 8.

[2] “Vatican Note on Cardinal Schonburn’s Papal Audience,” www.zenit.org/article-29737?=english

[3] “Vatican’s Cardinal Sodano accused of sex abuse cover-up,” http://www..irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2010/0510/1224270048664.html,

[4] Gerry O’Connell, “Papal intervention brings halt  to top cardinals’ public row,” The Universe, July 4th 2010, page 13.

[5] Op. cit.   www.zenit.org

[6] Gerry O’Connell, op.cit.

[7] Jason Berry, “How Fr.  Marciel built his empire,” National Catholic Reporter, www.ncronline.org

[8] Jason Berry, “Money paved way for Fr. Marciel’s Vatican influence,” The Irish Catholic, May 6th 2010, page 24 and 25.

[9] 2Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland.” Published by the Diocese of Meath, Lent 2010,  page 1.

[10] Ibid page 7

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