The Vatican has issued an unprecedented rebuke of a top cardinal who had accused the retired Vatican second-in-command of blocking clerical sex abuse investigations.
The silencing of Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna and long considered a papal contender, drew heated criticism from clerical abuse victims.
They said the Vatican should be honouring Cardinal Schoenborn, not publicly humiliating him, for his calls for greater transparency and demands for a crackdown on priests who abuse children.
The cardinal has also called for an open discussion of priestly celibacy; views that the Vatican said he "clarified" during an audience with the pope.
As it admonished Schoenborn, the Vatican appeared caught on the defensive on two other fronts in the ongoing sex abuse scandal: it remained locked in a diplomatic tiff with Belgium over the brazen raid on church offices last week, during which police detained bishops and even opened a crypt in search of church abuse documents. And it bristled at the US Supreme Court decision to let a sex abuse lawsuit in Oregon naming the Holy See go ahead.
Schoenborn had accused the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in April of blocking a church investigation into the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was accused by victims in 1995 of abusing boys at a seminary a scandal that rocked the Austrian church and cost Groer his job.
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 said only the pope can level such accusations against a cardinal, not another fellow prince of the church. And it sought to clarify the "petty gossip" comment, noting that the pope himself had used the same 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, had sparked widespread criticism that the Vatican simply did not appreciate the significance of the clerical abuse scandal. It suggested the pope himself and his collaborators believed the hundreds of reports that were flooding in of children being molested by priests, and the ensuing questions about the Vatican's handling of such cases, were mere gossip, not serious crimes.
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.