Associated Press – June 28, 2010
VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Monday issued an unprecedented rebuke of a top cardinal who had accused the retired Vatican No. 2 of blocking clerical sex abuse investigations, publicly dressing down a man who had been praised for his criticism of church abuse cover-ups.
The silencing of Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna and long considered a papal contender, drew heated criticism from clerical abuse victims. They said the Vatican should be honoring Schoenborn, not publicly humiliating him, for his calls for greater transparency and demands for a crackdown on priests who rape and sodomize children.
Schoenborn has also called for an open discussion of priestly celibacy; views that the Vatican said he “clarified” on Monday during an audience with the pope.
As it admonished Schoenborn, the Vatican appeared caught on the defensive on two other fronts in the ongoing sex abuse scandal: it remained locked in a diplomatic tiff with Belgium over the brazen raid on church offices last week, during which police detained bishops and even opened a crypt in search of church abuse documents. And it bristled at the U.S. Supreme Court decision to let a sex abuse lawsuit in Oregon naming the Holy See go ahead.
Schoenborn had accused the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in April of blocking a church investigation into the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was accused by victims in 1995 of abusing boys at a seminary – a scandal that rocked the Austrian church and cost Groer his job.
Schoenborn also accused Sodano of causing “massive harm” to victims when he dismissed claims of clerical abuse as “petty gossip” on Easter Sunday.
The Vatican said Monday that only the pope can level such accusations against a cardinal, not another fellow prince of the church. And it sought to clarify the “petty gossip” comment, noting that the pope himself had used the same phrase a week earlier, referring to the need to have “courage to not be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinions.”
The phrase, and Sodano’s repetition of it, had sparked widespread criticism that the Vatican simply didn’t appreciate the significance of the clerical abuse scandal. It suggested the pope himself and his collaborators believed the hundreds of reports that were flooding in of children being molested by priests, and the ensuing questions about the Vatican’s handling of such cases, were mere gossip, not serious crimes.
The Vatican said that interpretation was “erroneous,” although it didn’t explain what the pontiff or Sodano meant by the phrase. The Vatican said both men felt compassion for victims and condemnation for those behind the abuse.
Victims groups said the Vatican should have praised Schoenborn for his honesty in taking Sodano to task, not humiliate him and stifle other potential whistle-blowers within the church.
“By choosing instead to publicly embarrass Cardinal Schoenborn, the pope is sending an unmistakable message to his bishops that in his administration, avoiding scandal still trumps truth,” said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which compiles information and documents on clerical abuse.
The main U.S. victims’ group, SNAP, said the dressing down of Schoenborn, coupled with the pope’s harsh denunciation of the Belgian raid over the weekend, showed that the pope’s professed claim to do everything possible to stop priestly abuse was little more than lip service.
“With his words, Benedict professes concern for victims. But by his actions, Benedict shows concern for his colleagues,” said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The Holy See issued the statement after Schoenborn met with the pontiff in a private audience Monday. The audience was then broadened to include Sodano and the current Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
The Vatican communique said Schoenborn had wanted to “clarify the exact sense of his recent comments” concerning celibacy and Sodano. It said Schoenborn “expressed his displeasure for the interpretations.”
When asked by The Associated Press for further comment, Schoenborn’s spokesman said the cardinal would not be available for an interview.
Schoenborn has been a leading figure in the abuse crisis, forcefully denouncing abuse, presiding over service of reparations for victims and openly calling for an honest examination of issues like priestly celibacy.
Just last week, he unveiled measures designed to prevent clerical abuse and help victims in Austria, including the creation of a foundation for victims to cover their therapy costs and possible compensation demands.
Schoenborn’s comments about Sodano were remarkable in that they were directed at Pope John Paul II’s No. 2, who is also under fire for his alleged stonewalling of a Vatican investigation into the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was found to have abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.
Though retired as secretary of state, Sodano still wields enormous influence in Vatican circles as the dean of the College of Cardinals.
The Vatican’s public and formal reprimand of such a highly regarded cardinal is extremely rare. Previously, cardinals who have stepped out of line questioning church policy or doctrine have quietly issued their own mea culpas.
Schoenborn made the comments April 28 to a select group of Austrian journalists. He made them in a bid to defend Pope Benedict XVI, who was coming under fire himself for his handling of abuse cases both during his time as archbishop of Munich and as the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office.
In the discussion, Schoenborn said then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had immediately pushed for an investigative commission to look into the allegations against Groer. The cardinal stepped down shortly after the first allegations surfaced – officially due to old age. He died in 2003 but never admitted any guilt.
But Schoenborn said Ratzinger was thwarted by others in the Vatican – described by Schoenborn as the “diplomatic track,” meaning the secretariat of state, a clear reference to Sodano.
The Vatican statement Monday recalled that “in the church, only the pope has the competence to deal with accusations against a cardinal; other instances can have a consultation function, but always with the necessary respect for the people involved.”
In other comments on April 28, Schoenborn was quoted as saying the quality of a gay relationship should be taken into greater consideration, the church needed a new perspective on the remarriage of divorcees, and it was no secret the Vatican government was “in urgent need of reform.”
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