Over the past few months, Cardinal Angelo Sodano has faced a number of serious allegations in the media, most especially regarding his connections with the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.
The controversies prompted leaders, both in the traditionally orthodox and heterodox sectors of the Catholic press, to call for Sodano’s resignation as dean of the College of Cardinals. In a May 12 editorial in First Things, the publication’s editor, Joseph Bottum, wrote that Cardinal Sodano “has to go,” as 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,” Bottum wrote.
He lamented that the cardinal, 82, should be plagued by scandal at end of his life, saying it “would be kinder to protect the man and let him slip away unnoticed.” But after explaining some of the allegations against Sodano, Bottum concluded that even such a figure as the cardinal “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,” Bottum wrote.
Many of the allegations against Sodano had been made by Jason Berry, the investigative reporter who disclosed his findings in the National Catholic Reporter, most recently in a long two-part exposé of the Maciel scandal published in April this year. Unsurprisingly, Berry too believes Cardinal Sodano should step down and considers him clearly guilty of a number of unjust and corrupt actions. “I don’t think Benedict can salvage his papacy in the eyes of the world unless he gets rid of Sodano,” Berry told CWR, “and I don’t say that with any personal agenda against the Pope.”
So what are these damaging allegations against the cardinal who for 16 years served as Vatican secretary of state? Arguably, the two most serious cases involve his dealings with Father Maciel and his blocking of an investigation into Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the late archbishop of Vienna, who was found guilty of sexually abusing children in 1998.
SODANO AND MACIEL
Regarding Father Maciel, Cardinal Sodano is accused of taking substantial amounts of money in order to help the Legion ingratiate itself with the Vatican. This allegedly led Sodano to hinder investigations into Maciel, beginning in 1998 when ex-Legion victims filed a canonical case against Maciel with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Berry, Cardinal Sodano pressured Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the congregation’s prefect, to halt the proceedings.
Drawing on sources close to the Legion, Berry alleges that Cardinal Sodano had been wined and dined by the Legion throughout his career as secretary of state, often visiting the order’s headquarters in Mexico City to celebrate major events. He was described as a major “cheerleader” for Maciel’s order by one source, who alleged that Sodano was willing to give a talk to the Legion at Christmas for $10,000. Another priest said he recalled Sodano receiving a $5,000 donation.
“It was like a business arrangement. He was on the payroll, so to speak,” Berry told CWR. “You have to bear in mind that the Legionaries had become part of the Vatican’s ecclesiastical structure.” This wasn’t an accidental development, according to Berry, but a “highly calculated” strategy to “ground the order in the religious infrastructure of the Church in Rome.” He said this led to Maciel building a Legionary university campus in Rome—the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum—with the vital help of Cardinal Sodano.
Cardinal Sodano, originally from Piedmont, Italy, served as apostolic nuncio to Chile from 1977 to 1988. During that time, he became friends with Maciel and was friendly with the country’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. He used his political clout to help the Legion be admitted into Chile, despite strong opposition from several Chilean bishops, including the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez.
By 1989, Berry says Sodano, then a senior official in the Roman Curia, was already an honored guest at Legion dinners and banquets and had become Maciel’s biggest supporter. One of his tasks was to help fulfill Maciel’s wish to build the Regina Apostolorum. Berry quotes Glenn Favreau, a Washington, DC attorney and former Legionary in Rome, who said that Sodano intervened with Italian officials to get zoning variances to build the university on a wooded plateau of western Rome.
“Maciel hired Sodano’s nephew, Andrea Sodano, as a building consultant,” Berry wrote, “but Legionaries overseeing the project complained to Maciel that Andrea Sodano’s work was late and poorly done; they were reluctant to pay his invoices. To them, Maciel yelled: ‘Pay him! You pay him!’ Andrea Sodano was paid.”
SODANO AND FOLLIERI
Further questions surround Cardinal Sodano’s links with his nephew and in particular the nephew’s business associate, Raffaello Follieri, a property developer. Follieri was jailed in New York on fraud and money-laundering charges in 2008. A major part of his business involved the buying up of Church properties and parishes, many of which had been put on the market to pay for lawsuits from sexual abuse victims, and then reselling them.
Andrea Sodano was Follieri Group’s vice president. Press reports record Cardinal Sodano attending the company’s 2004 launch party in New York, and the firm trumpeted its “deep commitment to the Catholic Church and its long-standing relationship with senior members of the Vatican hierarchy.”
Follieri was later to misappropriate millions of dollars of investment capital from billionaire Ronald Burkle that was meant to buy up churches in the United States. But before then, soon after a series of investigative reports and two months prior to the Vatican banishing Father Maciel from public life in 2006, Cardinal Sodano sent a letter of complaint to Follieri.
In the missive, he wrote: “I feel it is my duty to tell you how perturbed I am to hear that your company continues to present itself as having ties to ‘the Vatican,’ due to the fact that my nephew, Andrea, has agreed on some occasion to provide you with professional consulting services. I do not know how this distressing misunderstanding could have occurred, but it is necessary now to avoid such confusion in the future. I do, therefore, appeal to your sensibility to be careful with respect to this matter. I shall accordingly inform my nephew Andrea as well as anyone else who has asked me for information regarding your firm. I take this opportunity to send you my regards.”
On October 23, 2008, Follieri pleaded guilty to 14 counts of wire fraud, money- laundering, and conspiracy, and is now serving 54 months in a federal prison. FBI agent Theodore Cacioppi told Berry that Andrea Sodano’s company “took in fraudulently earned money” and that the Bureau considered him and some of his associates “unindicted co-conspirators.”
Andrea Sodano was safely back in Italy at the time of Follieri’s arrest, and the FBI didn’t think it worth spending resources investigating him. But Berry reported on the government document that accuses Andrea Sodano of receiving payments, and also says that the Vatican itself received “donations” from Follieri’s scam.
The government sentencing memorandum on Follieri, filed by the US Attorney, Southern District of New York, stated: “Follieri created the false impressions that he had ties to the Vatican, which enabled him to obtain church properties at below-market values, through his relationship with Andrea Sodano, the nephew (“Nephew”) of the then-Secretary of State of the Vatican Cardinal Angelo Sodano…and making unauthorized donations to the Vatican with investor money. Follieri misused investor funds to pay the Nephew for ‘engineering’ services that the Nephew never performed so that the Nephew could travel with Follieri when visiting church officials and help Follieri obtain access to the grounds of the Vatican. It was through this connection that Follieri was able to attend one of the Pope’s services and, along with many others, get his picture taken with the Pope… show the private gardens of the Vatican to Follieri’s friends and associates, and arrange for guided tours of a museum at the Vatican.”
The sentencing memorandum continued: “Follieri also falsely represented that he needed over $800,000 to pay for the engineering reports prepared by the Nephew. Follieri claimed that the Vatican needed to review these engineering reports before the Vatican could make any decision about whether to sell the properties to Follieri.”
Berry believes Cardinal Sodano had long been aware of his nephew’s dubious connections with Follieri. “It’s pretty clear he knew Follieri was a cash cow for Andrea Sodano and Msgr. [Giovanni] Carru [undersecretary at the Congregation for Clergy],” he said, although there appears to be no evidence at all to directly implicate Cardinal Sodano in any of Follieri’s crimes. Berry, however, is disturbed by Sodano’s sense of amorality. “What is most striking about Cardinal Sodano’s letter is that he’s not saying cease or desist. He’s not expressing moral outrage. He’s telling him to be careful,” he said.
Up until this time, Maciel was busy trying to further ingratiate himself with the Vatican, offering gifts to Vatican officials to achieve his aims, one of which was to turn the Regina Apostolorum into a bona fide pontifical university. Many senior officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, refused to accept such gifts, but others didn’t. Cardinal Sodano is only on record as having accepted up to $15,000 as a gift from the Legion, but some sources believe he took more.
Although under canon law (no. 1302), Vatican officials, including cardinals, are obliged to report financial gifts to the cardinal-vicar of Rome, it’s not clear whether Cardinal Sodano considered himself bound by the same rule. “Vatican officials aren’t supposed to receive personal financial gifts for themselves, but they can act as channels for their own charities,” said one source close to the Vatican. “So if someone gives an official money and they give it to a charity, that’s OK, it doesn’t need to be reported.”
But this source said it was unclear to whom other gifts should be declared, and whether Cardinal Sodano needed to report to anyone else. “I don’t think he was answerable to anyone,” he said, adding there “should really be a clearer procedure to follow.”
But the alleged scandals surrounding Cardinal Sodano and Father Maciel go beyond just the financial. In 2004, the Vatican sent Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to Mexico to investigate the Legion. After Scicluna returned from one of his trips in 2005, just after the conclave that elected Cardinal Ratzinger pope, a communiqué was sent to the Legion from Cardinal Sodano’s office saying “there is no canonical procedure in course nor is one foreseen for the future with regard to Father Maciel.” The communiqué was given without consulting the CDF. “The Legion took that statement and put a spin on it to say Father Maciel had been exonerated,” said Berry. “In fact nothing of the sort had occurred.” The Holy See press office likewise sided with the secretary of state (it had no choice under the circumstances), and said there was not to be a canonical procedure.
In 2006, Cardinal Sodano helped minimize harm caused to the Legion’s name and structure. Although the Vatican ordered Maciel to refrain from all public ministries and to adopt a “life of prayer and penitence,” the Vatican statement continued to praise the Legion and Regnum Christi (the Legion’s lay movement) despite the misinformation campaign the Legion was running against the victims. The statement allowed the Legionaries to spin the news, leading to their own communiqué saying that Maciel had accepted the Vatican’s decision “with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer.” Berry said he has it “on good authority that Sodano’s fingerprints were all over that [Vatican] statement.”
SODANO AND THE ABUSE SCANDAL
This wasn’t the first time that Cardinal Sodano had interfered with an investigation. In May of this year, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, hinted that the former secretary of state had a history of mishandling abuse scandals. Speaking off the record to Austrian journalists, he said that in 1995, the future Pope Benedict pushed for a probe into abuse allegations against Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër but that Cardinal Sodano resisted the probe.
A month earlier, Cardinal Schönborn had told the New York Times that Cardinal Ratzinger had called for an investigation of Cardinal Groër, who served as archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995, but that “the other side, the diplomatic side, had prevailed.” Cardinal Groër eventually relinquished all his ecclesiastical titles in 1998, at the request of Pope John Paul II, as mounting evidence of sexual abuse emerged. What makes these allegations against Sodano serious is the extent to which his actions (in 1998, 2004, and 2006 with regards to Father Maciel, and in 1995 concerning Cardinal Groër) obstructed investigations and led to further injustices being perpetrated.
Sodano’s image of showing inadequate concern for the victims of sexual abuse by clergy was not helped on Easter Sunday of this year, when he issued what many saw as a bizarre tribute to the Holy Father in the face of a media onslaught on the Church over the sexual abuse crisis.
In an unscheduled statement, Cardinal Sodano referred to the criticism of the Pope’s handling of the abuse issue as “petty gossip.” Cardinal Schönborn, in that same meeting with Austrian journalists, said Sodano had “deeply wronged” the victims of sexual abuse by downplaying the importance of the issue. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, called them “certainly not the wisest of words” and made it clear that Benedict XVI had never asked for such a tribute.
For Berry, Sodano’s gesture wasn’t bizarre but “breathtaking in its arrogance” and entirely in keeping with his character. “If you stand back with a wide angle lens, Sodano has always been a realpolitik figure within the Vatican,” he explained. “He negotiated with Noriega to get him out of [the] nunciature to go to Florida, where he was assured to go to prison; he was close to Pinochet. I think Sodano has a Machiavellian attitude about power…. I can’t speak about his psychodynamics, but his public behavior certainly suggests a man in a Machiavellian role who is functioning within a monarchical power structure and knows he is the highest prince under the Pope.” Others see Sodano not so much as Machiavellian but as a certain kind of Italian stereotype— someone shrewd, wily, and shameless about nepotism.
A CULTURE OF NO ACCOUNT – ABILITY
Despite all the allegations swirling around him, Cardinal Sodano refuses to share his side of the story. When CWR contacted his office, we were told he was “too tired and busy traveling” to answer our requests for an interview. No officials, including those in the Holy See press office, were willing to step forward and defend him.
Berry, who also tried unsuccessfully for an interview, was unsurprised at his reluctance. “How does someone in his position explain some of the things he has done?” he asked.
One senior official, aware of these interview requests, said that the cardinal was unwilling to take his cue from the media. He also said that in the coming weeks, matters will go some way to being resolved, although he wouldn’t say how and ruled out Sodano’s resignation. Some speculate that he may have been referring to the expected Vatican guidelines to bishops on how to handle sexual abuse cases. The official also said he believed some of the allegations against Sodano were groundless, but didn’t give details.
Berry, however, stands full-square behind his revelations about Sodano, discovered in his research on the Legion. “I wouldn’t have written a book with [Gerald] Renner, made a film, and written all those articles if I didn’t believe in them,” he said. “I don’t want to say we’ve been vindicated, but we have been abundantly confirmed in our accuracy.”
But if the allegations are all true, many are mystified by the lack of consequences. Even under a pope with such a keen sense of justice as Benedict XVI, critics say the Vatican continues to perpetuate a culture of no accountability for wrong actions, leading to an absence of even the appearance of justice. Mysteriously, they say, the Pope appears unable or even unwilling to bring Cardinal Sodano to account. Instead he continues to support the dean of the College of Cardinals, and has even stepped up Sodano’s role, sending him to represent the papacy at a number of high-profile events, the latest being the Eucharistic Congress in Toledo, Spain. A close friend of Benedict XVI said the Pope told him at a recent dinner that he was particularly upset at Cardinal Schönborn’s public criticisms of Cardinal Sodano.
Yet many others are glad Schönbornsaid what he did, as the allegations areserious and need to be fully examined. Joseph Bottum, in his May 12 article for First Things, described Berry’s April exposé on the Legion as “fumbling” journalism and “thinly sourced” when it came to uncovering financial deals in Rome. But he felt Berry’s allegations were nevertheless “fumbling toward what seems to be the truth.”
The widespread hope is that Cardinal Sodano will come clean, thereby helping the purification of the Church
and enabling healing to begin.
As Benedict XVI said on his way to Fatima in May, the Church “has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice.”
“Forgiveness,” he said, “is not a substitute for justice.”