Cardinal Schönborn’s brave struggle

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Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna has faced down the powerful colleague he accused of wronging the victims of clergy abuse,

Monday 5 July 2010 14.58 BST

Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

Would any other cardinal but Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, have joined protesters against clerical sexual abuse in a reconciliation service in his own cathedral and spoken as he did – a service with the motto: “I am furious, God”?

Schönborn began by reading out a long and dramatic admission of the Church’s guilt. He thanked the abuse victims for breaking their silence and said that abuse in the Church was particularly serious, because it defiled God’s holy name. The Church must “get off its high horse”, which was without doubt a painful process, he said, “but what is that pain compared to the victims’ pain which we overlooked and did not hear?”

A month later, at a press briefing, Schönborn said that in meeting accusations from the general public that abuse cases had been hushed up, the Vatican had reacted “rather clumsily”. He was remarkably outspoken about one of the most senior cardinals in the Catholic Church, Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and now dean of the College of Cardinals, who on Easter Sunday in the Pope’s presence had called the reports of clerical sexual abuse “petty gossip”.

Sodano had “deeply wronged the victims”, Schönborn said, and he then revealed that when the then Joseph Ratzinger as head of the doctrinal congregation had wanted to investigate allegations of abuse against his predecessor in Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, it had been Cardinal Sodano who had stood in the way. The Roman Curia was “urgently in need of reform”, he added for good measure; more consideration should be given to the “quality of homosexual relationships”, as stable partnerships were certainly better than promiscuous ones; and the Church needed to reconsider its attitude to the divorced and remarried “as many people no longer marry at all”.

Last week Schönborn went to Rome to see the Pope. According to many of the international media reports, he was “chastised”, “rebuked” “rapped over the knuckles” and even “slammed”.

But Austrian church insiders remained calm. Schönborn has supposedly been chastised by the Vatican so often in the last fifteen years and yet has emerged stronger and more prominent each time than before. And behind the scenes, his open criticism of Cardinal Sodano is being applauded even in bishops” circles.

So what really happened? Schönborn’s audience with Pope Benedict went well. After 38 years – the then Joseph Ratzinger was Schönborn’s teacher – the two are as close as ever. I would think it inconceivable that Schönborn would have spoken out about Sodano without the Pope’s foreknowledge. But when the Pope asked Sodano and the present Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to join him and Schönborn, the whole atmosphere would seem to have changed. As one would expect in a confrontation between two very angry cardinals.

Whether by ancient tradition or deliberately, or a mixture of both, the wording of Vatican communiqués often closely resembles the clues in cryptic crosswords, where each clue is a puzzle in and of itself. That is why they are usually open to a broad spectrum of interpretations.

According to the official communiqué published immediately after the meeting, Schönborn had asked for a private audience as he wished to report to the Pope personally, first, on the situation of the Church in Austria, secondly on his statements about church discipline, and thirdly on the role Cardinal Sodano played in the Groer affair. When the Pope asked the other two cardinals to join them, “some widely-circulated misunderstandings partially derived from some comments of Cardinal Schönborn were clarified and resolved”, we are given to understand.

Schönborn expressed his regret “over the interpretations given”, we are told. Two of these “misunderstandings” are then clarified in detail: “when accusations are made against a cardinal, the competence rests solely with the Pope”; and the expression “petty gossip” used by Cardinal Sodano had been “erroneously interpreted as a lack of respect for the victims of sexual abuse”. In reality, the communiqué said, it was taken literally from the Pope’s Palm Sunday homily, and referred to “the chatter of dominant opinion”.

On his return to Vienna Schönborn himself first said that there would be no further comment on his part, but his press spokesman drew attention to the fact that the cardinal had not retracted any of his statements. Two days later Schönborn emphasised that in stating that “when accusations are made against a cardinal, the competence (of judgement) rests solely with the Pope”, the Vatican communiqué was referring to the case of Cardinal Groer. Clearly, Schönborn wanted to underline that it did not refer to his criticism of Cardinal Sodano.

Between Schönborn or Sodano, only time will tell who will win. But age is on Schönborn’s side – he is 65 – whereas Cardinal Sodano is 83. Schönborn is a conservative in matters of doctrine, but in favour of absolute honesty, especially as far as clearing up clerical sexual abuse is concerned, and wants to see the Church open to dialogue with the world as advocated by the Second Vatican Council. Sodano would seem above all to be determined to continue first and foremost to protect the Church’s image. The Church’s credibility and the reputation of Pope Benedict are at stake in the middle of what has been called the worst crisis the Catholic Church has experienced since the Reformation. Certainly as far as the next papal conclave is concerned, Schönborn has done himself no harm at all.

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