By Rachel Donadio (The NY Times)
June 28, 2010
In just 357 words, chosen precisely to obscure much meaning, the communiqué still managed to lay bare disagreements over the Vatican's handling of the sexual abuse crisis; the deep generational divide inside the church; the legacy of the last two popes; and to top it off, a tantalizing whiff of who might just become the next pope and why.
"It's something unheard of; it has never happened before," said Marco Politi, one of the writers of a book about Pope John Paul II and Vatican columnist for the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
On its face, the communiqué is a public rebuke to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. In April, he had implicitly criticized Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 82, the current dean of the College of Cardinals and Pope John Paul II's last secretary of state, for blocking an investigation into an Austrian archbishop accused in the mid-1990s of abusing minors.
The communiqué circuitously took account of this, recounting a meeting on Monday between Cardinal Schönborn and Pope Benedict XVI, joined later by Cardinal Sodano. Cardinal Schönborn, 65, was ruled to have overreached: "It must be reiterated that, in the church, when accusations are made against a cardinal, competency falls exclusively to the pope."
But the communiqué pointedly did not say that Cardinal Schönborn was wrong on the merits. In fact, by making the accusation against Cardinal Sodano, he had defended his friend and former professor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Schönborn's "line of transparency on pedophilia was not disputed," said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily Il Foglio. "What was disputed was his attack on Cardinal Sodano."
Some believe that Cardinal Schönborn stands a chance of succeeding Benedict as pope — and it seems unlikely he could do so if he is tainted with the sex scandal that has deeply wounded not just the church but the upper reaches of the Vatican. In one light, being the prodigal son portrayed in the communiqué makes him paradoxically a more likely heir apparent, in the eyes of the world if not the curia.
Vatican experts said the statement had been requested by Cardinal Sodano himself, who has not taken kindly to being depicted as the bad guy in a sotto voce campaign by Cardinal Schönborn and others to defend Benedict by implicitly criticizing how John Paul's papacy handled sexual abuse and other issues.
"The point of the statement is that Sodano wanted the pope to take a public distance from Schönborn, who had accused him," Mr. Rodari said.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the statement was ultimately a vindication of Cardinal Sodano or of Cardinal Schönborn. The statement relived a particularly low moment for Cardinal Sodano: his comments on Easter in which he was quoted as dismissing the "petty gossip" of critics of the church on sexual abuse.
The communiqué said he had been misunderstood and had not intended to show "disrespect for victims of sex abuse," but rather was referring to Benedict's Palm Sunday homily, where he had told the faithful not to be "intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion."
"Cardinal Sodano shares the same sentiments of compassion and of the condemnation of evil as the Holy Father has expressed in many speeches," the statement said.
The statement otherwise showed a papacy marked more by dissent than action, indicating that four months after a sexual abuse scandal began shaking the church and calling into question the behavior of Benedict himself, the Vatican is still furiously on the defensive.
The statement also mapped out publicly a battle raging within the Vatican between those who seek reform and openness against those who want to preserve the existing power structure.
Where Benedict falls on the line is the most vexing open question of his papacy. Where the others fall is somewhat clearer.
Cardinal Schönborn has called for more open discussion — if not quite reform — of some of the most hot-button issues facing the church, including the sexual abuse crisis and clerical celibacy.
The statement also said that Cardinal Schönborn had wanted to "clarify" his comments on both issues in his meeting on Monday with the pope, but it did not say how.
In his calls for openness, he appeared at odds with Cardinal Sodano, who still wields tremendous power within the largely Italian Vatican hierarchy.
In April, Cardinal Schönborn said that in the 1990s, Benedict, then the head of the Vatican's powerful doctrinal office, had wanted to open an investigation into Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer of Austria, who stepped down as archbishop of Vienna in 1995 after allegations he had sexually abused seminarians, but that the "diplomatic" branch of John Paul's papacy had blocked it, a clear reference to Cardinal Sodano.
Cardinal Gröer died in 2003 without admitting guilt or facing charges.
Monday's statement was issued after Cardinal Schönborn met privately with the pope on Monday, and immediately afterward with the pope, Cardinal Sodano and Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
BishopAcountabilty.org, a group in the United States that collects data on the sexual abuse crisis, criticized Monday's statement.
"Benedict should have praised Cardinal Schönborn for his honesty rather than put him in his place," it said. "The Austrian prelate's criticisms of Cardinal Sodano this spring were a rare and heartening example of frankness by a high-ranked church official."
"If the pope truly wants to fulfill his promise to 'do everything possible' to heal victims, he should have responded to such openness with humility and appreciation," the group said.
On Monday, the Vatican also issued an unusually detailed defense of the finances of its Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which has vast real estate holdings in Rome and whose former director, the current archbishop of Naples, has been a target in a broad corruption investigation by Italian magistrates.