Vatican City: The Vatican issued an unprecedented public rebuke Monday of a leading cardinal who had questioned the church`s policy of celibacy and openly criticized the retired Vatican No. 2 for his handling of clerical sex abuse cases.
In a statement, the Vatican said only the pope can make such accusations against a cardinal, not another so-called prince of the church.
In April, Vienna`s archbishop, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, accused the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, of blocking a probe into a sex abuse scandal that rocked Austria`s church 15 years ago.
Schoenborn also accused Sodano of causing "massive harm" to victims when he dismissed claims of clerical abuse as "petty gossip" on Easter Sunday.
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 celibacy.
Schoenborn`s comments about Sodano were remarkable in that they were directed at Pope John Paul II`s No. 2, who has already come 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.
Sodano still wields enormous influence in Vatican circles as the dean of the College of Cardinals.
Such a public and formal reprimand of a cardinal is extremely rare — particularly for one like Schoenborn, who has long been close to Benedict, his onetime professor, and is seen as a possible papal contender himself.
The Vatican on Monday sought to clarify Sodano`s "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 that the pope himself and his collaborators believed that the hundreds of reports that were flooding in of children being raped and sodomized by priests, and the questions that were being asked about the Vatican`s handling of such cases, were mere gossip, not serious crimes.
The Vatican 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.
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 a news agency for further comment, Schoenborn`s spokesman said the cardinal would not be available for an interview.
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. The comments were later summarized by the Catholic news agency Kathpress and picked up by media around the world.
In the discussion, Schoenborn blamed Sodano for having blocked an investigation of sex abuse allegations against the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer.
The scandal surrounding the late Vienna archbishop broke in 1995, when a former student at a boy`s seminary in the town of Hollabrunn alleged that he abused him repeatedly in the early 1970s. Other accusations followed. Groer stepped down shortly after the first allegations surfaced — officially due to old age. He died in 2003 but never admitted any guilt.
Schoenborn, who succeeded Groer as Vienna archbishop, said the pope — known then as Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Vatican`s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — had immediately pushed for an investigative commission when abuse allegations against Groer arose.
However, he said, others in the Vatican — described by Schoenborn as the "diplomatic track," meaning the secretariat of state, a clear reference to Sodano — did not let this happen.
His comments were intended to defend the pope at a time when Benedict himself was coming under fire for his handling of abuse cases both during his time as archbishop of Munich and as the head of the Vatican`s doctrine office.
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."