Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who died on 27 May at the age of 94, was a Holy See diplomat who wielded enormous power inside the Vatican but whose time in office was tainted by his perceived failure to tackle high-profile cases of sexual abuse.
The Italian prelate served as Secretary of State from 1990 to 2006 and during the years when John Paul II’s health was failing he effectively ran the Church’s central administration alongside the Polish Pope’s personal secretary, then-Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. A highly skilled diplomat, in 1984 Sodano helped John Paul II to mediate a resolution to the decades-long conflict between Chile and Argentina over the islands in the Beagle channel, forcefully articulated the Vatican’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, and was closely involved in steering the Church’s diplomatic relations with eastern Europe, Russia and China.
His death marks the end of an era. During a 60-year career, Sodano was the architect of the Holy See’s foreign policy and the power behind numerous thrones inside the Church. He was not only the right-hand man to two popes, he personally nurtured the careers of dozens of Vatican officials and diplomats. Such was his influence that it was once remarked that “a leaf did not move in the Vatican unless Cardinal Sodano wanted it to”.
To his critics, Sodano’s leadership style epitomised an approach which prioritised the reputation of the institutional Church, something that had disastrous consequences in his handling of clerical sexual abuse scandals.
In 2010, the cardinal described the abuse allegations then swirling around the Benedict XVI pontificate as “petty gossip” and he was accused of personally blocking investigations into two notorious abusers. One was Fr Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ who sexually abused many boys and young men in his care and used his order's enormous wealth to influence church leaders; the other was the Austrian Cardinal Herman Groer, accused of abusing numerous young students and monks.
Sodano always denied claims he protected Maciel and when Schönborn went public saying the Italian prelate blocked a Groer inquiry, it was Schönborn who ended up being ticked off by the Vatican for speaking out. Schönborn later recalled that, in the presence of Benedict XVI and Sodano, he had to apologise to the Pope for criticising Sodano. “Certain people in the Vatican lied,” the Austrian prelate said.
Angelo Raffaele Sodano was born on 23 November 1927 in Isola d’Asti, northern Italy, the second of Giovanni and Delfina Sodano’s six children. His father was a Christian Democrat politician who served three terms as a member of the Italian parliament from 1948 to 1963.
The young Angelo studied at the seminary in Asti was ordained in 1950. He went on to earn doctorates in Theology and Canon Law in Rome. His first nine years as a priest included stints as a youth chaplain and teacher in the local seminary before he was asked by Cardinal Angelo dell’Acqua to train as a papal diplomat at the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.
Sodano’s early diplomatic assignments in Latin America saw him cement deep connections across the continent. He took a hard line against liberation theology and during the John Paul II-era sought to build a network of bishops and papal diplomats who shared his view. From 1978 to 1988 he served as papal ambassador to Chile, where he developed close ties to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In 1999, as secretary of state, Cardinal Sodano lobbied former Prime Minister Tony Blair to allow Pinochet, who had been arrested in London after Spain had requested he be extradited to stand trial for alleged human rights crimes, to return home to Chile.
Sodano also became an ally of Fernando Karadima, a charismatic and well-connected priest who supported Sodano’s Pinochet-friendly Catholicism and sought to promote a number of young men who would go on to occupy high-ranking positions in the Chilean Church. When Karadima was accused of sexually abusing young boys, the Chilean hierarchy dismissed the allegations. The Karadima scandal blew up under Pope Francis, who ordered the mass resignation of Chile’s bishops, many of them a product of the Sodano era.
After three years as the Vatican’s minister for foreign affairs, John Paul II, who shared Sodano’s vigorous anti-communism, appointed the northern Italian as his Secretary of State, the number two position in the Vatican. When he stepped down from that position, he remained as the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who has a crucial organising role during a conclave, for another 13 years. In 2019, when Sodano was aged 92, Francis accepted the cardinal's resignation as dean, and ruled that future occupants of the office would have term limits.
The Argentinian Pope was always respectful to Sodano, describing him as an “ecclesially disciplined” churchman who carried out “attentive work” in diplomacy. Those tactful words cannot hide the fact that the Francis pontificate has drawn a curtain on the Sodano-era Vatican.