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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos’ ability to make headlines landed him on many journalists’ short lists as a possible future pope — but lately, those same headlines also show why he was probably never a serious contender.
The retired Colombian cardinal has become the most prominent lightning rod for controversy in the Catholic Church’s clerical sex abuse scandal since Cardinal Bernard F. Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002.
On April 15, the website of a French Catholic magazine published a letter Castrillon wrote in 2001, praising a French bishop for refusing to hand over a pedophile priest to the police. At the time, Castrillon headed the Vatican office overseeing priests around the world.
The Vatican’s response, in an environment where even implicit rebukes of senior churchmen are practically unheard of, was remarkable for both its swiftness and severity.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said Castrillon’s letter was “fresh proof” of the need for then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) to assume authority for all sex abuse cases in 2001, thus ensuring their “rigorous and coherent” treatment.
Apparently unchastened and unfazed by the public relations headache he had created for the Vatican, Castrillon told an audience in Spain the next day that the late Pope John Paul II himself had personally approved the 2001 letter.
Not even a week later, Castrillon said the letter not only had John Paul’s approval, but Ratzinger’s as well since Ratzinger had been present at a meeting of cardinals that approved the letter.
Castrillon’s letter, and his refusal to apologize for it, angered victims’ advocates in the United States, who forced organizers to rescind Castrillon’s invitation to preside at an elaborate Latin Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
When Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl refused to come to Castrillon’s defense, the retired cardinal finally backed out, a humiliating gesture for a churchman of his stature.
Yet it was not the first time that Castrillon had brought great embarrassment on the Vatican and himself.
Only last year, Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops provoked worldwide controversy after one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, turned out to be a known Holocaust-denier.
The Vatican office in charge of preparing for that step was at that time headed by Castrillon. Although Benedict did not publicly assign blame, he made the focus of his disappointment clear by ordering Castrillon’s independent office to be taken over by another Vatican body.
It’s been an ignominious end for an otherwise distinguished career for Castrillon, who reached the maximum cardinal’s retirement age of 80 last year.
As archbishop of Bucaramanga, Colombia, from 1992 to 1996, Castrillon acquired a heroic reputation for championing the rights of abandoned street children, and for challenging the notorious Medellín drug lord Pablo Escobar. According to one well-known story, Castrillon once disguised himself as a milkman to infiltrate Escobar’s house and demand his repentance.
The two men’s relationship became controversial, however, when it emerged that the bishop had accepted donations from Escobar, for what Castrillon later insisted were exclusively charitable purposes.
As secretary general and then president of the Latin American bishops’ conference from 1983 to 1991, Castrillon was also one of the most vocal critics of liberation theology, a movement that sought to reconcile Catholic social teaching with Marxist ideas. (Liberation theology also drew severe criticism from Ratzinger, in his role as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office from 1981 to 2005.)
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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