VATICAN CITY (AP) - The former Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, has assumed the lead role in praising the pope for his handling of clerical sex abuse and defending him against "unjust attacks" in the media.
But the retired Vatican secretary of state is an unlikely front man in Rome's battle for public opinion given his reported support for the Rev. Marciel Maciel, the discredited founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
Vatican investigators last month completed an investigation into the Legionaries after the order admitted that Maciel had fathered at least one child and had molested young seminarians.
The explosive revelations have called into question the very future of one of the church's most prominent religious movements and the Maciel case now stands as one of the more egregious cases of Vatican inaction concerning priestly sexual misconduct.
Sodano has long been accused in news reports in U.S. Catholic publications and in a book and documentary "Vows of Silence" of having helped stall a Vatican probe into the founder, although there's no suggestion he did so to cover up any alleged misdeeds.
In fact, Legionaries officials today - even those who worked closely with Maciel - say they were completely blind to the double life that he lived for decades.
It was only in 2006, nine years after the allegations against Maciel first went public, that the Vatican announced that it had concluded its investigation and had disciplined the Mexican prelate. The Vatican invited him to a "reserved life of prayer and penance" - making him a priest in name only. Maciel died in 2008.
Given that, it was odd that Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, was selected to give a high-profile salute to the pope at the start of Easter Mass on Sunday, praising Benedict as the "unfailing rock" of the Catholic Church.
"Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers," Sodano said.
Sodano followed up on Wednesday with a front-page interview in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, in which he blamed the "unjust attacks" against the pope on people who oppose the church's teaching on family and life - Vatican-speak for opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Sodano equated the scandal that Benedict is confronting to that facing Pope Pius XII, blamed by Jews for having failed to do enough to stop the Holocaust.
While Jewish leaders immediately questioned that parallel, critics of Maciel seized on the irony of Sodano coming to Benedict's defense.
"It must have been extremely frustrating for the Holy Father to sit through that address, while knowing that the speaker himself had intervened to thwart the Vatican's investigation into one of the most intransigent abusers - Marcial Maciel," said Genevieve Kineke, a former member of the Legionaries' lay movement Regnum Christi who edits life-after-rc.com, a discussion forum for people who have left the movement.
A message left at Sodano's home Wednesday was not returned.
Maciel founded the Legionaries in 1941 in Mexico City. The order's conservative view, strict loyalty to Vatican teaching and its success in enrolling recruits won the admiration of Pope John Paul II, whom Sodano served as secretary of state for nearly 15 years.
But Maciel spent the last years of his life fending off the accusations by former seminarians that he had sexually abused them - accusations which formed the basis of a book "Vows of Silence" by investigative reporter Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner.
After years of denying the charges and questioning the motives of the accusers, the Legionaries admitted in a March 25 communique that "though it causes us consternation, we have to say that these acts did take place."
The Legion also admitted that Maciel had fathered a daughter, and that two other brothers had come forward saying they were his children from a relationship with another woman.
Sodano had long been one of Maciel's top supporters in Rome, having befriended the charismatic Mexican while Sodano was the Vatican's nuncio in Chile in the 1970s, Berry has written.
The National Catholic Reporter, a U.S. Catholic newspaper, has reported that Sodano helped shut down a preliminary investigation into the abuse allegations in 1998 being carried out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now pope.
There's no indication though that he did so to cover up for Maciel.
On Wednesday, Berry published a lengthy article in the National Catholic Reporter suggesting that Sodano and other top Vatican officials received payments from Maciel.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said he had no comment.