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Vatican admonishes Austrian cardinal for comments

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Monday admonished a leading cardinal for having publicly criticized the former Vatican No. 2 for his handling of clerical abuse cases.

In a remarkable 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.

The Vatican sought to clarify Sodano's comments, noting Monday that the pope himself had used the "petty gossip" 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, sparked widespread criticism that the Vatican simply didn't appreciate the significance of the clerical abuse scandal. It also suggested the Vatican thought the hundreds of reports of abuse flooding in, and the questions that were being asked about the Vatican's handling of abuse for decades, was mere gossip.

The Vatican said 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. The audience was then broadened to include Sodano and the current Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Schoenborn, a former student of the pope's and a papal confidante, 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.

His 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.

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 former 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 Josef 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 did not let this happen.

His comments in defense of the pontiff came 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."


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