The Vatican issued on Monday an extraordinary public rebuke of an Austrian cardinal and former student of Pope Benedict XVI for comments last April in which he criticized a fellow cardinal who seemed to dismiss sex abuse revelations as "petty gossip" aimed at hurting the pope.
The Austrian cardinal, Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who helped elect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict in the conclave of 2005, had also made subsequent comments in the press raising questions
about mandatory celibacy for priests, and Schönborn was also forced to explain those remarks in his meeting with the pope on Monday.
At the start of Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square in April, as Benedict was being buffeted by increasing reports of clergy abuse of children and institutional malfeasance, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state who still wields great influence in Rome, defended the pope against what he called "petty gossip."
Most observers saw the words as a knock at the reports about clergy sexual abuse and the pope's own ambiguous role in some cases. One of those observers was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who told Austrian newspaper editors on April 28 that Sodano's remarks had "deeply wronged" the victims of clergy abuse.
"The days of coverup are over," Schönborn added, according to an account of the interview
in The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic weekly. Schönborn also noted that it was Sodano who had thwarted Vatican investigations of high-level abusers, such as Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, the previous Archbishop of Vienna, and Father Marcel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, a cult-like Catholic order now under Vatican censure.
Schönborn's comments were a highly unusual public critique of a fellow cardinal and indicated how much the abuse scandal has pressured and divided the Catholic hierarchy.
On Monday, however, it became clear that Schönborn had become something like the Gen. Stanley McChrystal of the Catholic command structure. He was called to the papal woodshed for his comments about Sodano and was subjected to a remarkable public admonition in a Vatican press office statement
that detailed first his meeting on Monday with Pope Benedict, then the meeting when the men were joined by Cardinal Sodano and the current secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Both Bertone and Sodano have been among the strongest defenders of Benedict against any accusations that he has been anything but exemplary as regards dealing with abuse cases, and the Vatican statement made it clear that any prelate who departs from that line will face the music.
The Vatican statement said that Schönborn "expresses his regret over the interpretations given" to his remarks about Cardinal Sodano, and it went on to note, in frank language for the Vatican, that it is the pope's job alone to deal with any "accusations against a Cardinal," and that any other complaints should be communicated privately to the Vatican.
The statement also noted that Sodano's use of the phrase "petty gossip" was in no way meant to convey "a lack of respect for the victims of sexual abuse" but was simply recalling the same phrase Benedict XVI had used in his papal homily
a week earlier on Palm Sunday. In that sermon, Benedict, apparently referring to reports about himself and other prelates, spoke of the "courage not to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinions." But Monday's statement still did not calrify what the pope or Sodano meant.
The upshot was that Benedict was standing by Sodano, who for years shielded the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ from inquiries.
That alliance surprised some papal observers, who saw the alliance between Benedict and Sodano -- who under the late Pope John Paul II had been antagonists in the Roman Curia, the papal bureacracy -- as perhaps undermining Benedict's efforts to show himself as a champion of reform in the wake of the sex abuse crisis.
It also left advocates for abuse victims angry.
"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, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Prelates who conceal the horrific and devastating rape of children need to be ousted. If Pope Benedict has his way, however, such prelates won't even face discussion, much less discipline. This is a recipe for continued disaster."
The Schönborn-Sodano showdown wasn't the only fire Benedict had to put out this week.
On Sunday, Pope Benedict issued an unusually direct and blunt complaint about a raid by Belgian police
on the offices of top Catholic churchmen in Belgium as part of the authorities' investigation of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Belgian agents detained the country's bishops for nine hours, prompting Vatican Secretary of State Bertone to compare the tactics to those of a communist regime. The pope called the raids -- which included drilling into the tomb of a former Belgian cardinal on a suspicion that church records had been hidden there -- "surprising and deplorable."
Results of the raid have not been made public.
In another development on Monday that could further pressure the pope, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lawsuit that accuses the Vatican
of transferring a priest from city to city despite repeated accusations of sexual abuse.
The Vatican wants the federal courts to throw out the lawsuit that seeks to hold the Roman Catholic Church responsible for moving the Rev. Andrew Ronan from Ireland to Chicago to Portland, Oregon, despite the sex abuse accusations.
The Vatican is generally exempt from such lawsuits under sovereign immunity laws because the Holy See -- the formal name for the Vatican city state -- is an internationally recognized country.
But lower federal courts have ruled in this case that there could be an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act that could affect the Vatican. Monday's ruling is limited in scope but it could signal trouble for the Vatican in a more important case
in which victims are trying to show that the Vatican -- and the pope -- can be held liable in a broader conspiracy to cover up the sexual abuse of children by clergy.