[Editor’s note: Crux is publishing an occasional series of brief profiles in the ongoing drama surrounding clerical sexual abuse, ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and accusations of cover-up against various Church officials including Pope Francis.]
ROME – As a Synod of Bishops on young people begins this week despite calls for the gathering to be either postponed or overhauled due to recent clerical abuse scandals, several key players in the drama are beginning to come into clearer focus.
One such figure is Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who reportedly knew about misconduct allegations against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick as early as 2000.
Currently prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches, Sandri came in for mention in a letter penned last month by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, who charged that several Holy See officials, including Pope Francis, knew about McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians yet did nothing.
McCarrick had been a celebrated figure in American Catholicism, but he was removed from the College of Cardinals in July following accusations that he had abused minors some 40 years ago. As the U.S. bishops prepare to launch investigations in four dioceses where the McCarrick drama is centered, more questions have been raised than answered.
Sandri was the author of a letter sent to the whistleblower in the McCarrick case, a New York pastor named Father Boniface Ramsey, by the Vatican, proving they were aware of allegations as early as 2000, long before they went public.
A history in diplomacy
Born in November 1943 in Buenos Aires, Sandri had a lengthy track record of experience in the diplomatic service of the Holy See before the Viganò affair began.
Just three years after his ordination in 1967 he began studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a doctorate in Canon Law, and at the Pontifical Latin American College. In 1971, Sandri entered the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Holy See’s de-facto diplomatic training school, and three years later, in 1974, was named as an official in the Vatican’s embassy to Madagascar and Mauritius.
He served in that role until 1977, when he was brought back to Rome as a secretary to the “sostituto” or “substitute” for general affairs at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. He held the role until his 1989 assignment as an aide at the Vatican’s embassy to the United States, a role he had for three years.
Sandri was then named to the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, an office currently led by German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, in 1991, and was brought back into the Vatican’s Secretariat of State as assessor of general affairs.
In 1997 he was appointed by St. John Paul II as the Vatican’s ambassador to the troubled nation of Venezuela. Three years later, in 2000, he became the sostituto himself.
That role was held by Sandri until he was appointed in 2007 by Benedict XVI as Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches – a role that has become increasingly important as Christian persecution continues to spike across the Middle East.
In his testimony, Viganò, who served as the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016, said his predecessor, Colombian Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, received a letter from Ramsey in 2000 detailing rumors of McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians.
After Montalvo’s tenure, Viganò alleges that more complaints against McCarrick began to pour in, which included an “Indictment Memorandum” by Gregory Littleton, a former priest laicized for abusing minors, who recounted his own abuse by McCarrick and that of several other priests and seminarians.
According to Viganò, who at the time was working as an official inside the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, after hearing of Littleton’s memorandum in 2006, he sent the document to his superiors – Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the then-Secretary of State for Vatican City, and Sandri, who was serving as sostituto.
Viganò in his letter said that he had told both Bertone and Sandri that “the facts attributed to McCarrick by Littleton were of such gravity and vileness as to provoke bewilderment, a sense of disgust, deep sorrow and bitterness in the reader.”
In a memo sent directly to Sandri, Viganò said he urged that certain “considerations” and sanctions be imposed. He argued that the situation was going to “be added to the many scandals for the Church in the United States,” following bombshell revelations of clerical sexual abuse made public by media in 2002.
Viganò said he wanted the Church to intervene before scandals surrounding McCarrick broke in the press, saying “this could have restored some dignity to a Church so sorely tried and humiliated by so many abominable acts on the part of some pastors.”
If this were done, he said, “the civil authority would no longer have to judge a cardinal, but a pastor with whom the Church had already taken appropriate measures to prevent him from abusing his authority and continuing to destroy innocent victims.”
However, rather than being met with a swift answer or action against McCarrick, Viganò said his memo in 2006 was never acknowledged either by Bertone or by Sandri. Viganò charged that Sandri “knew in every detail the situation regarding Cardinal McCarrick,” yet failed to act.
A letter sent from Sandri to Ramsey dated Oct. 11, 2006, inquiring about a priest from the Archdiocese of Newark who studied at the Immaculate Conception seminary and was being considered for a Vatican post proves that Sandri knew about allegations against McCarrick as early as 2000, when Ramsey first brought his concerns to the nuncio.
According to Catholic News Service, in the letter Sandri told Ramsey that, “I ask with particular reference to the serious matters involving some of the students of the Immaculate Conception Seminary, which in November 2000 you were good enough to bring confidentially to the attention of the then Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, the late Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.”
Though Ramsey said he had never received any sort of response or confirmation after blowing the whistle on McCarrick in 2000, he was certain his letter had been passed from the Vatican’s embassy in Washington to Rome, since Sandri’s letter in 2006 acknowledged the allegations he had made six years prior.
With Catholic faithful across the U.S. demanding answers from their leaders about the situation, many both at home and in Rome, including Sandri, who is still in active ministry at the Vatican, will increasingly fall into the spotlight.