In Vienna, he won high marks early on for steadying a church that had been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal involving his predecessor. As time went on, however, Schönborn's image became more mixed. He was involved in an ugly clash with the demagogic Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, and many people preferred Krenn's blunt talk to Schönborn's shifting and evasive comments. Schönborn then carried out a purge of his staff, in one case informing his popular vicar general that he had been fired by leaving a note on his doorstep.To me, the fact that Schönborn confronted Krenn, who was one of the nastiest reactionaries you could find, is very much a point in his favor as far as I'm concerned. So is the fact that he was willing to confront Cardinal Sodano because he was mishandling the sex abuse problem.
More recently, Schönborn has watched as hundreds of his own priests have gone into open rebellion, issuing a "call to disobedience" over issues such as celibacy and the role of women in the church. (The movement is actually led by the former vicar.) While Schönborn hasn't exactly welcomed the uprising, he hasn't shut down lines of conversation either, which some see as admirable pastoral sensitivity, and others as cowardice.
Two years ago, many people were ready to write an obituary for Schönborn's papal prospects after a highly public spat with Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a former Secretary of State and still the dean of the College of Cardinals.
As a series of clerical abuse scandals exploded across Europe, which among other things cast a critical spotlight on Benedict XVI's personal record, Sodano created a sensation by calling that criticism "petty gossip" during the Vatican's Easter Mass.
In a session with Austrian journalists not long afterward, Schönborn not only said Sodano had "deeply wronged" abuse victims, but he also charged that Sodano had blocked an investigation of Schönborn's predecessor, Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer, who had been accused of molesting seminarians and monks and who resigned in 1995. Schönborn reportedly said that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wanted to take action, but he lost an internal argument to Sodano.
The fact that Schönborn has also navigated his leadership of the Austria Church in the face of an active reform movement, not only among priests but among the laity, sparked in the 1990s by Archbishop Groer's sex-abuse-scandal-related problems, is at least a hopeful sign when thinking about Schönborn as a candidate for the Papacy. The Church is facing huge pressures for constructive reforms and for good reason. A leader who can function in that situation without relying primarily on authoritarian crackdowns or trying to build up reactionary leadership that that nasty Krenn doesn't sound so bad.
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