ROME — Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who rose to the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church as the Vatican’s top diplomat, the ultimate power broker of the papal court and the deeply influential dean of cardinals before seeing his reputation stained by his connection with the cover-up of sex abuse scandals, died on Friday. He was 94.
His death was announced by the Vatican, which did not say where he died or cite a cause.
Cardinal Sodano served as secretary of state, the second-highest-ranking position in the Vatican after the pope, for 16 years. His tenure covered a good portion of the pontificate of John Paul II, who once described him as “my first and precious collaborator.” As Parkinson’s disease and other ailments debilitated John Paul II, Cardinal Sodano, along with the pope’s private secretary, played an outsize role in running the church.
The cardinal mediated in the Balkan wars and vigorously opposed the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq. In 2003 he told reporters, “We are asking for reflection not only on whether a war would be just or unjust, moral or immoral, but also whether it is opportune to irritate a billion followers of Islam.”
But Cardinal Sodano is most known in the church for the power he often exercised within the Vatican hierarchy, including to block investigations of sexually abusive priests and to further his conservative and anticommunist vision of a church that put protection of the institution above all else. In 2010, speaking during a public Easter address, he infamously called accusations of abuse “petty gossip.”
In 2019, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Sodano’s resignation as dean of the College of Cardinals, saying kind words but also making clear that the church had to modernize and issuing a decree to add term limits to the dean’s role.
Francis, knowing Cardinal Sodano’s sway in the Vatican, where he had nurtured the careers of many top officials, was always careful to show him respect, including in death.
“The passing of Cardinal Angelo Sodano stirs in my soul feelings of gratitude to the Lord for the gift of this esteemed man of the church,” Francis wrote in a note of condolence on Saturday. He added, “I recall his diligent work alongside so many of my predecessors who entrusted him with important responsibilities in Vatican diplomacy,” and he credited the cardinal with working for reconciliation in South America, where Francis, an Argentine, is from.
Angelo Raffaele Sodano was born on Nov. 23, 1927, in northern Italy to Delfina Brignolo and Giovanni Sodano, a politician, but his career and connections would become deeply rooted in South America, where he worked in the church’s diplomatic corps as a young priest. In 1977, Pope Paul VI sent him to Chile as the papal ambassador. He navigated, and critics say grew exceedingly close to, the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet as well as to a charismatic priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a prominent and financially generous religious movement founded in Mexico that fueled the church with priests, universities, media outlets and money.
John Paul II, sharing his anticommunist zeal, made him Cardinal Sodano in 1991 and soon elevated him to secretary of state, a position from which the cardinal exercised near unrivaled power in the Vatican.
Critics have long argued that Cardinal Sodano abused that power and identified him as a dominant force for the secrecy and malfeasance that alienated many faithful from the hierarchy in Rome during John Paul II’s pontificate.
Cardinal Sodano was “the man who, more than any other, embodies the misuse of power that has corrupted the church hierarchy,” Jason Berry, a reporter who covered the church’s sexual abuse scandals, wrote in a New York Times guest essay in 2013.
In L’Osservatore Romano, the church’s official newspaper, Cardinal Sodano in 2010 called the abuse accusations “unfair attacks” that were “used as a weapon against the church” by its enemies.
He overruled efforts to urge Pope John Paul II to speak out against abusive priests, such as in the case of Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër. The pope remained silent on that scandal, even though Cardinal Groër’s successor as archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, said that he was “morally certain” of his predecessor’s guilt. Cardinal Schönborn told reporters several years later that Cardinal Sodano “literally said — to my face — ‘Victims? That is what you say!’”
But criticism of Cardinal Sodano often centered on his connection to, and protection of, Father Maciel, the Legionaries of Christ founder, who engaged in decades of molestation of children and of seminarians, abused drugs, fathered children, and employed his order’s enormous financial assets — billions of dollars, according to some estimates — to buy influence in the church’s leadership. Those revelations, and Cardinal Sodano’s apparently benefiting from Father Maciel’s largess, cast a long shadow on John Paul II’s entire papacy.
Pope Benedict XVI dismissed Father Maciel from ministry in 2006. He died in 2008.
“We accept and regret that, given the gravity of his faults, we cannot take his person as a model of Christian or priestly life,” the Legionaries conceded in 2010.
Cardinal Sodano long denied accusations that he had protected Father Maciel.
In 1998, accusations against Father Maciel crossed the desk of a powerful German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handled abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger ordered an investigation, but in the face of opposition — led, critics say, by Cardinal Sodano — Cardinal Ratzinger tabled the investigation for years.
Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. A year later, he replaced Cardinal Sodano.
But for nearly another 15 years, Cardinal Sodano served as dean of the College of Cardinals, even though he had passed the voting age of 80 to participate in the 2013 conclave to elect a new pope after Benedict’s resignation.
Vatican analysts reported that Cardinal Sodano used his influence to benefit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was elected in that conclave and took the name Francis. But the cardinal’s influence waned in the new pontificate, which sought, albeit with mixed results, to confront the church bureaucracy that Cardinal Sodano had long controlled.
Francis has also taken significant steps to shed light on the Vatican’s missteps in handling the scourge of sexual abuse, moves that did not always reflect well on Cardinal Sodano.
In Chile, Cardinal Sodano had also became close to Fernando Karadima, another charismatic priest, who had become influential among the social elite of the capital, Santiago, and who had deep connections to the country’s military regime. As early as the 1980s, accusations surfaced that Mr. Karadima had abused boys, but Chilean prelates continuously dismissed the charges.
The truth exploded a few years into the pontificate of Francis, who, disastrously, chose to believe his bishops over the abused, even accusing victims of calumny. The resulting crisis caught the pope flat-footed and made him look tone deaf. In the wake of the controversy, Francis changed tack and set in motion new norms for accountability and transparency in the church aimed at preventing further abuse and holding to account those who cover it up. Francis defrocked Mr. Karadima in 2018.
On his 90th birthday, Cardinal Sodano returned to his hometown, near Asti, where he was ordained in 1950.
“This is the hour of sunset,” he said. “It’s time to say thank you.”
Anna Momigliano contributed reporting.