Study in scarlet
Clerical sex-abuse scandalElena Curti
- 8 May 2010
He was once papabile but now Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos’ reputation has suffered after it was revealed that he congratulated a French bishop for sheltering a paedophile priest. But with characteristic chutzpah Cardinal Castrillón has come out fighting
Resplendent in the flowing red silk cappa magna at Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos looked every inch a prince of the Church. He was about to be the first cardinal to celebrate Mass in England in the old rite for more than 40 years.
It was an occasion of extraordinary splendour with beautiful vestments, music and billowing incense. For the man at its heart, the Mass marked a triumph. Louder than any words, it proclaimed that Pope Benedict had formally approved a project very close to his heart.
Cardinal Castrillón is a key supporter of the Tridentine Rite and, at a press conference just before the Mass in 2008, he took advantage of the opportunity to interpret the implications of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, issued a year earlier, that encouraged wider celebration of the old Mass. With characteristic enthusiasm he declared that the Pope wanted to see the Tridentine Rite celebrated in every parish in England and Wales whether parishioners asked for it or not. The Pope, he said, was determined this “treasure” be offered to all Catholics – with emphasis on “all”.
It was a performance typical of the Colombian’s style, with its insistence on papal authority. There was a flash of impatience when I asked him to elaborate on the “abuses” that he said had crept into the celebration of Masses in the new rite. With horror he described the content of letters he had received complaining about priests celebrating Mass in a wig and clown make-up or wearing miniskirts. Fixing me with a stare, he said with heavy irony that in his “poor opinion” the new presence of the “Gregorian Rite” (the name he gave the Tridentine Rite) would address the atmosphere that had encouraged these abuses.
But today, Cardinal Castrillón finds himself the object of fierce criticism for insisting that bishops are fully justified in protecting from the civil authorities priests who abuse children. Feelings are running so high that he felt obliged to withdraw from an engagement to celebrate a Tridentine Rite Mass in Washington DC a week ago, with an American bishop taking his place. Castrillón, who was given important curial posts by John Paul II and was also close to Pope Benedict, found himself identified by the Vatican as “part of the problem” when it came to addressing the culture of cover-up and secrecy on the issue of clerical abuse.
Cardinal Castrillon’s highly defensive position on the issue of child abuse in the Church has been known for years. But he aroused fresh controversy last month when the text of a letter he sent to a French bishop, Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux, was unearthed from the internet where it had lain unnoticed since it was sent in 2001. In it he praised Bishop Pican for protecting a priest convicted of raping a boy and sexually abusing 10 others. “I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the others bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons, a priest,” wrote the cardinal, who was prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the time.
Furthermore in a later interview, Cardinal Castrillón robustly defended his letter, and said the future Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) was present at a meeting when it was agreed it should be sent. The Vatican’s response was to use the Castrillón letter as one reason why it was felt to be wise to give Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith exclusive responsibility for investigating clerical abuse cases in 2001.
“This document is another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” said a statement from the Vatican press office.
The message implied is that the CDF prefect wanted to get tough with abusive priests and rejected Cardinal Castrillón’s notion that priestly solidarity was paramount. Perhaps this marks a turning point for Castrillón whose career has not been short of controversy either in his native Colombia or in Rome. At the age of 81 and officially retired he has remained a polarising figure, attracting the devotion of conservatives and the loathing of progressives.
Darío del Niño Jesús Castrillón Hoyos was born in Medellín in 1929. He trained for the priesthood in his home city but did further studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he obtained a doctorate in canon law, and at the University of Louvain, where he specialised in religious sociology as well as political and ethical economics. He was ordained a priest in Rome in 1952 before returning to Colombia. He worked first in two rural parishes but rapidly rose through the ranks in the hierarchy.
He is often described as a protégé of the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo – another Colombian favourite of John Paul II and principal scourge of liberation theology. Although Castrillón is six years older than López Trujillo, the younger man was singled out for high office early becoming an auxiliary in Bogotá at only 36. In Colombia, Castrillón followed López Trujillo’s climb up the hierarchical ladder, serving after him as secretary general of the Latin American Episcopal Council (Celam) (1983-87) and then president (1987-1991). When López Trujillo died in 2008 Cardinal Castrillón paid tribute to him, calling him “a true fighter for Christ”.
Castrillón was appointed coadjutor Bishop of Pereira in 1971 and succeeded to the see five years later. There it is reported that he would walk the streets of the city at night to help feed abandoned children. He was a champion of the homeless, too, and on one occasion spoke out against a clean-up operation to clear the streets of makeshift dwellings.
Soon after, however, local media showed him blessing a restaurant that belonged to a well-known drug trafficker. In fact his relationship with the traffickers was complex. He has never denied one famous story of how, disguised as a milkman, he once turned up uninvited at the home of the drugs lord, Pablo Escobar – at that time the most wanted man in Colombia – and persuaded him to confess his sins. He is thought to have persuaded Escobar not to launch his campaign of car bombings in the Diocese of Pereira, while it was unleashed in Bogotá and the country’s other major cities.
However, like López Trujillo, he was accused of taking money from the traffickers for the Church. He admitted as much at a regional meeting of Celam on 24 July 1984, when he said he had accepted cash from Escobar’s drug cartel for charitable purposes. He justified his action by saying that by taking the money he stopped it being used in illegal activities such as prostitution, and said he had warned the donors that giving money “would not save their souls”. But later, as Archbishop of Bucaramanga (1992-96), he made several public statements against corruption in Colombia, unafraid to embarrass local and national officials and politicians.
He demonstrated his strong support for the Vatican line against liberation theology when he was secretary general of Celam. In 1984 he sent a letter to the dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng after Küng produced an account of a meeting between the then Cardinal Ratzinger and the Celam bishops. Küng – and several newspapers – reported a rift between the CDF prefect and some of the Celam bishops. Castrillón told Küng that the Latin American bishops were “in compete accord” with Cardinal Ratzinger on liberation theology. The following year as spokesman for Latin America at the synod of bishops, Castrillón caused outrage among liberal Latin Americans by claiming that liberation theology was like “a Church with a machine gun”.
Yet Castrillón has boasted of his links with the left-wing Farc guerrillas in his home country. In a recent interview he claimed that he had “friends” among their senior ranks. “My friends – and I dare to call them that – are in high levels of the armed guerrillas,” he told the Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo. He also defended them, stating that they could not be called “narco-terrorists”.
In the 1990s Castrillón was among a number of Latin Americans given high office in the Roman Curia. They formed a bloc determined to counter what they saw as post- Vatican II liberal tendencies in the Church. They supported Cardinal Ratzinger’s determination to bring dissident theologians to heel, were enthusiastic about the old Mass and wanted to see the excommunicated Lefebvrists brought back into the Church.
Castrillón received his red hat after being made prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy (1998-2006). He later became president of Ecclesia Dei (2000-09), a commission tasked with leading negotiations with the Lefebvrists. The authoritative conservative journalist George Weigel wrote recently that the problem with Ecclesia Dei was that it “was a curial free agent – a loose cannon, rolling around the deck of the Barque of Peter, accountable to no other curial office”.
Weigel added that Castrillón is remembered for giving “the worst Curia press conference in living memory” in 2002. It happened when John Paul II entrusted him to present his annual Holy Thursday letter to the world’s priests. At the time the clerical sexual abuse scandal in America was at its height and the journalists had been promised the official Vatican response. There were some brief references to the crisis in the Pope’s letter but Cardinal Castrillón seemed prepared to offer more. According to The Tablet’s report of the press conference, he invited questions from the journalists on the subject and wrote down all that was being asked. Then, smiling, he put the questions to one side and delivered a prepared statement in which he robustly defended the Church.
According to our report, the cardinal raised his voice on a couple of occasions, appearing irritated that people had the temerity to suggest that the Church had been negligent, and refused to answer a single one of the journalists’ submitted questions. The reporters were left flabbergasted by the display.
Although Cardinal Castrillón’s time as prefect at the Congregation for the Clergy ended in 2006, he remained in charge at Ecclesia Dei until last year when he retired at the age of 80. He had already done all he could to promote the old rite following Pope Benedict’s motu proprio and was confident this would smooth the way for returning the Lefebvrists to communion with the Church. He hoped to end his career on a high when he recommended lifting the excommunication against four Lefebvrist bishops of the priestly Society of St Pius X (SSPX). But the Pope’s acceptance of this advice led to disaster.
It quickly became apparent that the SSPX under Bishop Bernard Fellay would press hard for a revision of the central teachings of Vatican II. Even more quickly, the Pope was mired in a huge row by the news that one of the SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, did not believe in the Holocaust and repeated his view in a television interview transmitted days after his excommunication was lifted. It was pointed out that Williamson’s views could be found on the internet on the click of a mouse and that Cardinal Castrillón was an enthusiastic user of the internet, frequently extolling the web as a means of communication. But Castrillón maintained he knew nothing of Williamson’s history and dismissed suggestions to the contrary as “calumny”.
The same day that Castrillón finally retired from Ecclesia Dei, the once powerful commission was subsumed into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That blow, and the emergence of his letter to the French bishop, might have cowed lesser clerics, but not Castrillón.
On 16 April he addressed a conference in Spain on the legacy of John Paul II and told them the late Pope had authorised him to send the letter. According to media reports, he was rapturously received by an audience that included at least two senior Vatican cardinals. Although many look at Castrillón as “part of the problem”, he is still lionised by elements within the Church determined to assert clerical authority and to demand unquestioning loyalty from the faithful.