Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican power broker linked to sex abuse cover-ups, dies at 94

ROME — Cardinal Angelo Sodano, an Italian who rose to the top of the Roman Catholic Church as a top Vatican diplomat, the ultimate power broker in the papal court, and a deeply influential senior cardinal before his reputation was tarnished by his connection to the cover-up of the sexual abuse scandals, died. He was 94 years old.

The cardinal died Friday evening, according to the Vatican. No cause of death was given.

Cardinal Sodano served as Secretary of State, the second highest post in the Vatican, after the Pope, for 16 years, spanning much of the pontificate of John Paul II, who once described him as “my first and precious collaborator. “As Parkinson’s disease and other ailments weakened John Paul II, Cardinal Sodano, along with the pope’s private secretary, played an outsized role in the running of the church.

The cardinal mediated in the Balkan wars and vigorously opposed the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq, once telling reporters in 2003: “We ask for a reflection not only on the question of whether a war would be just or unjust, moral or immoral, but also whether it is appropriate to irritate a billion followers of Islam.

But Cardinal Sodano is best known in the Church for the power he often wielded within the Vatican hierarchy, including blocking investigations into sexually abusive priests and advancing his conservative, anti-Communist vision of a Church. who places the protection of the institution above all else. . In 2010, speaking in a public address at Easter, he infamously called the abuse accusations “petty gossip”.

Francis, knowing Cardinal Sodano’s influence in the Vatican, where he nurtured the careers of many high officials, was always careful to show him respect, including in death.

“The passing of Cardinal Angelo Sodano stirs in my soul feelings of gratitude to the Lord for the gift of this esteemed man of the Church,” Francis wrote in a note of condolence on Saturday. He added: “I remember his diligent work alongside so many of my predecessors who entrusted him with important responsibilities in Vatican diplomacy”, and credited him with having worked for reconciliation in North America. South, where François, an Argentinian, is from.

Angelo Raffaele Sodano was born in 1927 in northern Italy to Delfina Brignolo and Giovanni Sodano, a politician, but his career and connections would become deeply rooted in South America, where he worked in the diplomatic corps of the Church as a young priest. In 1977, Pope Paul VI sent him to Chile as papal ambassador. He navigated, and critics say he became extremely close, to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet as well as a charismatic priest, the Reverend Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, an important religious movement and financially generous founded in Mexico. who supplied the church with priests, universities, media and money.

In 1991, John Paul II, sharing his anti-Communist zeal, appointed him Cardinal Sodano and soon elevated him to the rank of Secretary of State, a post from which the Cardinal wielded almost unparalleled power in the Vatican.

Critics have long argued that Cardinal Sodano abused that power and identified him as a dominant force for secrecy and malfeasance that alienated many worshipers from the hierarchy in Rome during John Paul II’s pontificate.

Cardinal Sodano was “the man who, more than any other, epitomizes the abuse of power that has corrupted the church hierarchy,” wrote Jason Berry, a reporter on the church’s sex abuse scandals, in a 2013 New York Times guest essay.

In L’Osservatore Romano, the church’s official journal, Cardinal Sodano in 2010 called the abuse charges “unjust attacks” that were “used as a weapon against the church” by its enemies.

He quashed efforts to urge Pope John Paul II to expose abusive priests, as in the case of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër. The Pope has remained silent on the scandal, even though Cardinal Groer’s successor as Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, said he was “morally certain” of his predecessor’s guilt. Cardinal Schönborn told reporters several years later that Cardinal Sodano “literally said to me – to my face – ‘Victims? That’s what you say! ‘”

But Cardinal Sodano’s criticism has often centered on his relationship and protection with Father Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ who engaged in decades of assaults on children and seminarians, abused drugs, fathered children and used the enormous financial assets of his order – billions of dollars by some estimates – to buy influence in the leadership of the church. These revelations, and the fact that Cardinal Sodano apparently benefited from the largesse of Father Maciel, cast a long shadow over the entire papacy of John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI fired Father Maciel from the ministry in 2006. He died in 2008.

“We accept and regret that, given the gravity of his faults, we cannot take his person as a model of Christian or priestly life”, conceded the legionaries in 2010.

Cardinal Sodano has long denied accusations of protecting Father Maciel.

In 1998, accusations against Father Maciel crossed the desk of a powerful German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handled abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger ordered an inquiry, but opposition – critics say led by Cardinal Sodano – led Cardinal Ratzinger to file the inquiry for years.

Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. A year later he replaced Cardinal Sodano.

But for nearly 15 more years, Cardinal Sodano served as dean of the College of Cardinals, though he passed the voting age of 80 to attend the 2013 conclave to elect a new pope after Benedict XVI resigned. .

Vatican analysts reported that Cardinal Sodano used his influence for the benefit of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was elected in this conclave and took the name of Francis. But the cardinal’s influence faded in the new pontificate, which sought to confront, albeit with mixed results, the ecclesiastical bureaucracy that Cardinal Sodano had long controlled.

Francis has also taken important steps to shed light on the Vatican’s missteps in handling the scourge of sexual abuse, steps that have not always reflected well on Cardinal Sodano.

In Chile, Cardinal Sodano had also become close to Fernando Karadima, another charismatic priest who had become influential among the social elite of the capital, Santiago, and who had deep ties to the country’s military regime. As early as the 1980s, accusations were leveled against Mr. Karadima’s boys, but Chilean prelates have continually dismissed the charges.

The truth exploded a few years after the pontificate of Francis, who, disastrously, chose to believe his bishops at the expense of abused victims, even accusing of slander. The resulting crisis caught the pope off guard and deafened him. In the wake of the controversy, Francis changed course and implemented new standards of accountability and transparency in the church aimed at preventing further abuses and holding accountable those who conceal them. Francis defrocked Mr. Karadima in 2018.

On his 90th birthday, Cardinal Sodano returned to his hometown near Asti, where he was ordained in 1950.

“It’s sunset time,” he said. “Time to say thank you.”

Anna Momigliano contributed report.

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