Cardinal Sodano has to go. The dean of the College of Cardinals, he has been found too often on the edges of scandal. Never quite charged, never quite blamed, he has had his name in too long a series of depositions and court records and news accounts—an ongoing embarrassment to the Church he serves. The Vatican has been responding in a disorganized way to the frenzy of recent press stories about often thirty-year-old abuse cases. What it should do is put its own house in order, moving out the unhelpful remnants of the bureaucracy that allowed those scandals to fester for so long.
The latest revelations concern the financial benefits Cardinal Sodano received from Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the corrupt conman who founded the Legion of Christ and its associated lay group, Regnum Christi. And those revelations follow hard on the 2008 convictions of Raffaello Follieri for wire fraud and money laundering. (Follieri’s company, you’ll remember, was trading in decommissioned church property, and it relied for its crimes on the prestige of having Cardinal Sodano’s nephew as its vice president.) That news, in turn, followed the cardinal’s reported role in thwarting a 1995 investigation into the subsequently proved accusations against the episcopal molester in Vienna, Hans Hermann Groër.
In one sense, of course, it’s very sad. A long career in the Church is not ending well, and it would be kinder to protect the man and let him slip away unnoticed. But Cardinal Sodano himself seems unwilling to let it be so. Speaking of the stories that were on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world, he told the pope publicly at Easter this year, “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment.”
Petty gossip? There’s room for complaint about the way the scandals have been used to advance every agenda under the sun, but when the subject is abused and sodomized children, petty is not the adjective of choice. Even in a season of mismanaged Vatican responses to the frenzy of the press, Sodano’s line was stunningly tone-deaf, and it served mostly to give the media yet another day of headlines. As things stand, if (God forbid) Pope Benedict were to die, the obsequies would be led by Cardinal Sodano—and the newscasts, hour after hour, would feature rehashes of all that is now associated with his name.
But that’s not the real problem. The deeper point is the lack of consequences— visible consequences—for failures and missteps and wrong associations in the Vatican. The real problem is that heads haven’t rolled, penalties haven’t been exacted, for Fr. Maciel’s deceptions.
For many years, Cardinal Sodano received money and benefits for his projects from the Legion of Christ, and in 1998 he halted investigations into sexual abuse by the Legion’s founder. That apparent quid pro quo ought to have a price.
It ought to have a price precisely because the scandal of Fr. Maciel is so deadly. The child-abuse cases were a corruption in the Church. What Fr. Maciel attempted is a corruption of the Church. He fooled many people, including this magazine’s creator, Richard John Neuhaus, who once defended Maciel in a 2002 column, before agreeing later that Cardinal Ratzinger (investigating Maciel at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and John Paul “know more than I know with respect to evidence.”
The irony is that Fr. Neuhaus didn’t undertake that defense at the behest of Maciel, whom he never knew well. He did so because people he did know well, young American priests of the Legion, begged him to do so, telling him that their founder was suffering an attack they were certain was false and unfair. The first victims are the men, women, and children that Maciel, in his polymorphous perversity, used sexually, but the second set of victims are the good, strong, dynamic priests who had little direct contact with the man and are nonetheless tarred by his actions.
In the long history of the Church, enduring religious establishments have been built by the sinful, but usually the new order’s spirituality is a correction to the sinfulness: a way, a charism, that leads such sinners to Christ. Maciel, however, wrote his sins, and his power to cover up those sins, deep into the spirituality of the Legion of Christ—in how it handles confession, how it treats obedience, and how it understands authority.
The bishops who undertook the apostolic visitation of the Legion have finished their work, presenting their report to the Vatican on April 30. In anticipation, the directors of the Legion issued a statement on March 26, which read, “We ask all those who accused him in the past to forgive us, those whom we did not believe or were incapable of giving a hearing to, since at the time we could not imagine that such behavior took place.” On April 25, Fr. Owen Kearns, publisher of the Legion’s newspaper, the National Catholic Register, added, “To Father Maciel’s victims, I pray you can accept these words: I’m sorry for what our founder did to you. I’m sorry for adding to your burden with my own defense of him and my accusations against you. I’m sorry for being unable to believe you earlier. I’m sorry this apology has taken so long.”
All that is good, and yet, it isn’t enough. First Things has never received money from the Legion (and the closest I personally have been to their finances was a single review, of an Orhan Pamuk novel, I wrote for the National Catholic Register back in 1997). But then one thinks of the likes of Thomas Williams, Tom Hoopes, Thomas Berg, and all the other friends and acquaintances who had associations with the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. For that matter, many American Catholic commentators have lectured over the years at the movement’s events. The money they received was never significant, but it all helped contribute to an atmosphere in which the Legion could close ranks after the first public accusations against Maciel.
That atmosphere has to be eliminated, which will require the rewriting and reordering not just of the institutional structure but also of the spiritual design of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi.
In April, the National Catholic Reporter published a two-part article about Maciel’s financial dealings. Given the obsession with all things Catholic this spring, a time when the Long Lent of 2002 seemed to have come around again, the article received surprisingly little attention. Perhaps that’s because the author, Jason Berry, didn’t quite have the story he wanted. His account of cash in Rome was thinly sourced, and his reporting on Maciel’s actions in Mexico didn’t find the smoking gun we’ve all long expected to be found—the one that shows the Legion’s connections to the likes of Carlos Slim, whose telephone monopoly and political string-pulling made him the world’s richest man, and to the endemic corruption of Mexican politics.
As I wrote when the articles first appeared, although they were fumbling as journalism, they were fumbling toward what seems to be the truth. A larger part of the reason that the mainstream media didn’t latch on to the story may be that it does not fit the narrative of the moment—for Joseph Ratzinger, first as cardinal and now as pope, comes off in the Maciel scandal as something like the hero. Not until the end did John Paul II see more than a charismatic Latin American figure, raising money and training vibrant, active priests. Cardinal Ratzinger clearly saw deeper, despite the powerful protection Cardinal Sodano cast over Maciel.
The received journalistic narrative skewed a great deal of other reporting this spring. All through March and April, Der Spiegel, the New York Times, and the Irish Times—to name only a few—were working, quite accurately, within the media’s standard picture, which demands that the pope himself must have been involved in covering up crimes in the Church.
A more accurate understanding, as I wrote in a recent Weekly Standard article, would see that the first part of the scandals—the most evil, disgusting part—is basically over. For a variety of reasons, Catholics suffered through a corruption of their priests, centered around 1975, with the clergy’s percentage of sexual predators reaching new and vile levels. The Church now has in place stringent child-protection procedures, and the cases now being discussed, real and imagined, are more than a decade old.
The second part of the scandals, however, involves not the mostly dead criminals but the living institution. The bishops who ruled over those corrupt priests catastrophically failed to act. There were never a lot of these Catholic cases, but there were plenty enough—with every single one a horror, both in the act itself and in the failure of the bishops to react. The Catholic Church did not start the worldwide epidemic of child sexual abuse, and it did not materially advance it. But the bureaucracy of the Church did not do nearly enough to fight that epidemic when it broke out among its own clergy. And for these failures, every Catholic is paying—in nearly $3 billion of donations lost in court judgments, in suspicion of pastors, and in deep shame.
Insofar as anyone comes out well from all this, it is Pope Benedict. However much the narrative demands that he be pulled in, nothing yet published has held up to serious scrutiny. Which ought not, really, to be a surprise. This man was the one who actually saw there was a problem—the one who, in 2005, openly denounced the “filth in the Church and in the priesthood.” A Maltese abuse victim who met the pope this April told an interviewer, “I did not have any faith in priests. Now, after this moving experience, I have hope again. You people in Italy have a saint. Do you realize that? You have a saint!”
Not that the Vatican has managed to tell this story. The responses of the bureaucracy in Rome have swung between unhelpful silences and wrong-headed whines. There may be good reasons not to play the publicity games—driven by media cycles and celebrity culture and dramas of shame and fame—in which the world is caught up these days. The wheels of Catholicism have always ground slowly, operating with a deliberation that will not, and should not, match the world’s hectic pace. Then again, there may be good reasons for the Church to take the world as it finds it, trying to move people toward Christ from where those people actually are.
But, over these recent months of frenzy, the Vatican has unsuccessfully adopted both these modes. The bureaucracy has attempted public relations and done it badly. And the bureaucracy has attempted interior review, for the edification of its people and the good discipline of its priests, and that, too, has not been done particularly well. The faithful are saddened, responding to the news accounts with a sigh and mumble, and the clergy are disheartened and confused.
For either purpose, a figure such as Cardinal Sodano has to be removed from his current position and told to serve the Church in prayer. Everyone inside the Church needs to be taught that there are consequences for scandalous mistakes. And, for the outside world, Catholicism needs a story to tell, a narrative that can convey the simple truth: Despite the sins of its members, the Church remains what it has been—a light in dark places, a force of charity for the weak and the poor, and a hope for humankind on its way to the saving truth that is God.