ROME - In the mounting conversation about accountability amid the Churchs sexual abuse scandals, one question that often doesnt get as much attention as it should is what, exactly, people need to be held accountable for - that is, which sorts of actions on the abuse scandals are worthy of sanction, and what proof higher authority needs before consequences ought to be imposed.
To begin with the clearest case, zero tolerance obviously implies that the direct commission of sexual abuse requires swift and stern discipline, and we now know that standard holds even for Princes of the Church due to the example of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
We also know, at least in theory, that covering up abuse by others is also a violation of the zero tolerance policy, meaning that it, too, is supposed to draw sanction - though proving such knowledge, as opposed to suspecting it, is often surprisingly difficult.
Where it gets stickier is when the charge isnt committing a crime or a cover-up, at least not directly, but simply being on the wrong side of history - showing such poor judgment, such tone-deafness and insensitivity, as to suggest ignorance of the magnitude and depth of the abuse crisis, thereby rendering the Churchs response weaker and less convincing.
If there is accountability for that sort of lapse in the Catholic Church, you certainly couldnt tell it judging by the current Dean of the College of Cardinals.
This week, the Irish Times reported that Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, while he was the Vaticans Secretary of State under St. Pope John Paul II, broached the idea of negotiating a deal to keep Church archives closed from government inquiries with then-Irish President Mary McAleese in November 2003. The Times also reported that two years later, Sodano asked then-Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern if his government would promise to indemnify the Vatican for any losses it might occur in Irish courts related to sex abuse litigation.
While the Vatican hasnt commented on those reports, theyre entirely consistent with what we know about Sodanos modus operandi.
In February 2005, for instance, Sodano asked then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to intervene to block a class-action lawsuit then before a United States District Court in Louisville, Ky., which sought to hold the Vatican financially responsible for the sexual abuse of minors. Rice was compelled to explain that in the American system the executive branch of government doesnt have that power, and that foreign states are required to assert their immunity themselves in American courts.
(For the record, the Vatican eventually did just that, successfully, and the lawsuit foundered.)
Bear in mind both the Irish and American requests came after the explosion of the abuse scandals in the U.S. in 2002/2003, so one cant argue that Sodano didnt understand how serious the crisis was, or how hurtful it would be to survivors to see the second most powerful figure in the Vatican making protecting institutional assets his top concern.
Nor is that the only question mark in Sodanos history in terms of his view of what zero tolerance implies.
In 2010, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, accused Sodano of having blocked a Vatican investigation of the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer, who was accused of various forms of sexual abuse and misconduct and who was eventually stripped of his duties and privileges as a cardinal in 1998. According to Schönborn, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wanted to launch a trial against Gröer under Church law but Sodano got in the way.
Schönborn was later compelled to travel to Rome for a kiss-and-make-up session with Sodano and Benedict, but he never retracted the substance of his charge.
Schönborn spoke, by the way, not long after Sodano used the phrase petty gossip in an Easter homily in connection with press coverage of the reports of clerical abuse victims, in a way that many victims found deeply insensitive.
Then theres the issue of Sodanos longstanding strong support for Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was found guilty by Ratzinger and his team at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of sexual abuse and misconduct in 2006 and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance.
Sodano was a Maciel ally up to the bitter end. Even as Ratzingers team was conducting its investigation, Sodano arranged for the Vatican to issue a public statement insisting there was no canonical procedure against Maciel - which was technically correct, since the decision had been made to handle the case informally due to Maciels age and health, but the statement obscured the larger truth that the Vatican was on his trail.
Sodano even fought against releasing a public statement about the 2006 sentence, well after the letter communicating it had already been received by Maciel and distributed within the order, on the grounds of saving Maciel the embarrassment.
So, where does all that leave us?
Theres certainly never been a suggestion that Sodano himself has abused anyone, and even charging him with cover-up in the case of Maciel may be a stretch - rather than him having direct knowledge of Maciels crimes, the more plausible scenario likely is that Sodano just didnt want to know. He admired Maciels orthodoxy, zeal and success with youth - not to mention his fundraising prowess - and was inclined to ascribe the charges against Maciel, which had circulated since 1997, either to envy or political opposition.
On the other hand, theres little question that the cumulative weight of Sodanos career suggests an official whos been unwilling, or unable, to take on board the real nature of the clerical abuse crisis, and he hardly inspires confidence in terms of a robust commitment to reform.
Granted, Sodano is now 90, yet he remains the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and if Pope Francis were to die tomorrow, hed still preside over the daily meetings of cardinals in the run-up to the conclave to elect a successor. Moreover, Sodano is active despite his age, and is widely seen in Rome as exercising significant behind-the-scenes influence through an extended network of friends and proteges, especially in the Secretariat of State.
As Francis ponders what accountability for the abuse scandals implies, sooner or later hell likely have to consider figures such as Sodano - officials who may not be guilty of a crime or a cover-up, but whose choices and statements have left many observers, especially abuse survivors, wondering exactly how serious the system truly is about zero tolerance.