Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican power who dismissed sexual abuse, dies

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Angelo Sodano as they arrive to attend a consistory at the Vatican February 13, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a controversial Vatican power broker for more than a quarter of a century who was accused of covering up one of the Catholic Church's most notorious sex abusers, has died at the age of 94.

Sodano, who had been ill for some time and died on Friday night, was secretary of state under two popes -- John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- holding the number two post in the Vatican hierarchy for 16 years between 1990 and 2006.

It was widely believed that Sodano, together with John Paul's secretary, then-Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, ran the Church in the final years of the late pope's life as his health deteriorated from Parkinson's and other illnesses. John Paul died in 2005.

In a series of exposes in the National Catholic Reporter in 2010, author Jason Berry, a leading expert on the Church's sex abuse crisis, wrote how Sodano blocked the Vatican from investigating Father Marcial Maciel, disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ religious order.

After John Paul's death, Pope Benedict ramped up investigations of Maciel and removed him in 2006, when the Vatican acknowledged that allegations it had been brushed aside for decades were true.

The cult-like Legion of Christ order, whose rules forbade criticizing its founder or questioning his motives, later acknowledged that Maciel, who died in 2008, lived a double life as a paedophile, womanizer and drug addict.

Sodano several times denied allegations that he was aware of Maciel's double life and that he had covered up for him. Maciel, a conservative seen as a bulwark against liberalism in the Church, was known to have made generous financial gifts to the Vatican.

In 2010, four years after Pope Benedict replaced Sodano as secretary of state, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna accused Sodano of having blocked a full-scale investigation of former Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer.

Groer stepped down as archbishop of Vienna in 1995 after allegations that he had sexually abused young seminarians in the past. He died in 2003 never admitting guilt or facing charges.

Sodano also denied those accusations.

In 2010, victims of clergy sexual abuse condemned Sodano for saying at a public Easter address that abuse was mostly "petty gossip".

Ordained a priest in 1950, Sodano joined the diplomatic service several years later. He served in Vatican embassies in Ecuador, Uruguay, Chile before being called back to the Vatican for senior administrative roles, including the number two spot.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of clergy sexual abuse in his native Chile and now a member of a Vatican commission on preventing sexual abuse, wrote on Twitter that Sodano was "a man who inflicted so much damage on so many people and covered up years of abuse in Chile and the world".

Sodano was Vatican ambassador in Chile between 1977-1988.

Vatican insiders have said that even after he retired, Sodano, who continued to live in the Vatican, exercised significant influence in the careers of Vatican officials for the remainder of Benedict's pontificate. Benedict resigned in 2013.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Ros Russell and Daniel Wallis)

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