Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State under Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, died Friday. The cardinal was 94 years old.
Sodano was also dean of the College of Cardinals for nearly 15 years, the first cardinal to serve simultaneously as Secretary of State and dean of the college.
The cardinal impeded Vatican investigations into claims of sexual abuse against high-ranking clerics, and is widely reported to have defended or enabled some priests and bishops accused of serial sexual abuse, including former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Sodano’s death was first reported by Italian Vatican reporter Francesco Antonio Grana late Friday afternoon, and has been reported by other Italian media.
Born November 23, 1927 in northern Italy, Sodano was ordained a priest in 1950. He earned doctorates in theology and canon law while in formation for service in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.
Sodano served in the 1970s and 1980s as apostolic nuncio to Chile, during much the period in which dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled the country. The cardinal was an ardent and sometimes outspoken supporter of Pinochet, despite the dictator’s human rights abuses, and was critical of Catholic-led protest movements against the Pinochet government.
The cardinal was also an active opponent of the liberation theology movement in Latin America, which was criticized heavily in the Vatican during the 1980s because its theology was said by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to draw from a Marxist social and anthropological framework.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II, appointed him to serve as the Vatican’s foreign minister, called formally the Secretary for Relations With States.
In 1990, Sodano was named Vatican Pro-Secretary of State and made a member of the College of Cardinals, formally taking over from his mentor Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and becoming Secretary of State the following year.
In his career as a Vatican diplomat, Sodano was often considered an archpragmatist. As secretary for relations with states from 1988 and as Secretary of State from 1991 he was known to be a staunch defender of Ostpolitik, the Vatican’s controversial diplomatic policy of engagement with Communist governments in central Europe during the Cold War and especially in the 1970s despite the persecution of the Church and of Catholics by political authorities.
In 2014, in a speech given to mark the silver anniversary of Polish elections of 1989, the cardinal claimed that Pope John Paul II’s success in fostering democratic movements in Warsaw Pact countries had been accomplished only because of the Vatican’s long-time policy of non-antagonism and encouraging state cooperation by the Church in countries like Hungary, despite historical evidence appearing to indicate the contrary.
Sodano was also a prominent champion of Vatican engagement with the Communist government of China, even at the expense of long standing diplomatic ties. In 1999, the cardinal claimed that the Holy See would close its embassy in Taiwan “not tomorrow, but today” if it was the price of establishing diplomatic relations with the mainland.
The cardinal was accused in 2010 of blocking a Vatican investigation into Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, who was accused in 1995 of serially sexually abusing seminarians. While Groër resigned his position as Archbishop of Vienna that year, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn alleged in 2010 that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have conducted a canonical criminal investigation into the allegations had it not been for Sodano's intervention.
Groër was stripped of the rights and duties of a cardinal in 1998, but died in 2003 without having faced any formal investigation for his alleged sexual abuse.
Sodano also blocked Vatican investigations into Legion of Christ founder Marcel Maciel, who was eventually found to have serially sexually abused minor seminarians, young priests, and numeous women around the globe, to have fathered children, and to have been a drug addict for decades.
After Sodano was asked to resign as Vatican Secretary of State one year into Benedict XVI’s papacy, a thorough investigation into Maciel found the cleric was “devoid of any scruples and authentic sense of religion.”
The cardinal has been accused of defending other priests and bishops facing serial sexual abuse, cover-up, or negligence charges, and of advising Pope Francis that allegations against Chilean Bishop Juan Barros were concocted by political enemies of the Church.
And in the late 1990s and early 2000s Sodano played a key role in communications between the Vatican and American bishops over sexual abuse allegations against Theodore McCarrick; Sodano has been accused of providing incomplete information to Pope John Paul II on allegations against McCarrick, or otherwise ignoring complaints.
In recent years, Sodano had declined comments to press inquiries about those allegations.
Sodano was elected dean of the College of Cardinals in 2005, and remained in the position for nearly 15 years. But in December 2019, Pope Francis accepted Sodano’s resignation as dean - the senior cardinal who summons and presides over a conclave to elect a new pope.
When he accepted Sodano’s resignation, Pope Francis also issued a motu proprio announcing that the role would now be a five-year renewal term rather than a lifetime appointment.