During his eight years as pope, Benedict XVI sought rebirth for the Roman Catholic Church by meeting with victims of predator priests and making several apologies for the church’s aching abuse crisis.
But he failed to buck the logic of apostolic succession, a position that sees cardinals and bishops following in a direct spiritual line from Jesus’ original apostles but has been warped into a de facto immunity given to men of the hierarchy.
Still, Benedict has one last chance to right some of the wrongs of the recent past by forcing out Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals and the man who, more than any other, embodies the misuse of power that has corrupted the church hierarchy.
Cardinal Sodano is hardly alone: a long list of leaders betrayed Catholics everywhere with their pathological evasions, sending known sex offenders into treatment centers to avoid the law, then planting them in parishes or hospitals where they found new victims.
But Cardinal Sodano ranks with the Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony as an egregious practitioner of the cover up. As John Paul II’s secretary of state, he pressured Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, in two notorious cases.
In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër resigned as archbishop of Vienna, trailed by accusations, soon proven, that he had abused young men. Cardinal Ratzinger wanted the pope to speak out; Cardinal Sodano overruled him.
Cardinal Sodano also pressured Cardinal Ratzinger to abort a case filed in 1998 by several men accusing the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, of abusing them as seminarians. Cardinal Sodano was a longtime beneficiary of money and favors from Father Maciel. Priests who left the order told me he received at least $15,000 in cash.
Cardinal Ratzinger tabled the case until 2004 but, with John Paul dying, finally ordered an investigation. In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict. Cardinal Sodano’s office then announced the Maciel proceeding was over, while people kept testifying. Benedict dismissed Father Maciel from ministry in 2006; he died in 2008. Still, Cardinal Sodano lavished praise on the Legion, despite the news that Father Maciel had several children.
In 2005, Cardinal Sodano was elected dean of the College of Cardinals, which will select the next pope. At 85 years old, he is too old to vote, though he will oversee the conclave, and will surely have his candidate.
Benedict did not do enough as pope to right the church’s ship; he recoiled from using the powers of the pope as, literally, a one-man Supreme Court to force out these who engineered this train of disasters. But he still has time for one last act. As Benedict leaves the crisis he inherited from John Paul to the cardinal who will become the next pope, he should do one sure thing before his Feb. 28 resignation: force out Cardinal Sodano. He owes that to his successor.
Jason Berry is the author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.