In an unusual public chastisement, the Vatican has said that a series of statements by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn have contributed to widespread misunderstandings on issues related to clerical sexual abuse.
In particular, the Vatican took issue with Cardinal Schönborn’s statement that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Secretary of State, had blocked an investigation of sexual abuse and offended victims by calling their complaints “petty gossip”.
“It should be remembered that in the Church, when there are accusations against a cardinal, the competence rests solely with the pope; others may have an advisory role, always with the proper respect for the person,” a Vatican statement said.
The statement was issued after Pope Benedict XVI met Cardinal Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, on Monday, June 28. The meeting was requested by Cardinal Schönborn to “clarify the exact meaning of his recent statements” on a number of topics, the Vatican said.
In a closed-door session with Austrian news editors in May, Cardinal Schönborn reportedly said that Cardinal Sodano, the veteran Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and now the dean of the College of Cardinals, had hindered the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse of children by the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer, who was forced to step down as archbishop of Vienna in 1995.
Cardinal Schönborn said that at that time Pope Benedict then head of the Vatican office in charge of investigating accusations of clerical sex abuse, had been thwarted by Cardinal Sodano in his efforts to take more direct action on the accusations against Cardinal Gröer, Austrian news media said.
Cardinal Schönborn also was quoted in the reports as saying Cardinal Sodano had offended victims of sexual abuse in the Church when, at the Pope’s Easter Mass in April, he used the term “petty gossip” in referring to the current controversy surrounding the Church.
In addition, Cardinal Schönborn was said to have suggested that the Church reconsider its position toward remarried divorced Catholics, who are not allowed to receive Communion, and toward homosexuals in stable relationships.
The Vatican said that in their private meeting Pope Benedict and Cardinal Schönborn had discussed his comments about Cardinal Sodano as well as “some aspects of current Church discipline”.
Afterwards Cardinal Sodano and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the current Secretary of State, were called in for a continuation of the encounter.
The Pope and the cardinals were able to “clarify and resolve some misunderstandings that were widespread and in part deriving from some expressions used by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who expresses his displeasure at the interpretations that were given”, the Vatican statement said. After underlining disapproval of public criticism of a fellow cardinal, the statement said Cardinal Sodano’s use of the term “petty gossip” was “erroneously interpreted as a lack of respect for the victims of sexual abuse”. In fact, it said, Cardinal Sodano has compassion for the victims and condemns the evil of abuse.
It said that in using the term, he was quoting from a papal homily the week before about the need for Christians to have “the courage not to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant public opinion”.
Cardinal Sodano also came under scrutiny earlier this year after allegations that he had received large sums of money from Legionaries of Christ officials seeking to buy influence in Rome. He has neither confirmed nor denied the accusations.
According to the National Catholic Reporter Cardinal Sodano had helped to block an investigation into abuse allegations against Fr Marcial Maciel in 1998.