WikiLeaks exposes Cardinal Law’s work in Vatican-Vietnam relations

Pope Benedict XVI meets Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet Credit Alessia Giuliani Vatican Pool Getty Images Getty Images News CNA Vatican Catholic News 9 22 11 Pope Benedict XVI meets Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet in December 2009. | Alessia Giuliani/Vatican Pool/Getty Images

The WikiLeaks release of secret and confidential State Department cables has revealed that American Cardinal Bernard Law is actively working in Vatican-Vietnam relations. His “personal involvement” helped confirm the December 2009 meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet.

“It took a visit to Vietnam last week by American Cardinal Bernard Law to finalize arrangements to allow the visit to go forward, according to a person close to the cardinal,” reports a secret December 4, 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The cable, signed by U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz, says that Cardinal Law told the embassy’s deputy mission chief that he discussed bilateral relations and the president’s visit directly with the Vietnamese.

“In these discussions, the Vietnamese expressed little interest in formal diplomatic relations but considerable interest in ensuring the already-announced visit would go forward,” the State Department cable says. “The Cardinal did not reveal whether he obtained any concessions from the Vietnamese in order to confirm the visit, but that seems likely.”

While WikiLeaks releases had been redacting the names of sensitive U.S. contacts, all the cables were released in unredacted form when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange decided to release over 250,000 State Department cables on Aug. 30.

A notation in the December 2009 cable advises to “strictly protect” Cardinal Law’s identity.

The cardinal’s interactions with U.S. embassy officials in Hanoi are also noted in a confidential cable from the Hanoi embassy, dated November 25, 2009.

During Cardinal Law’s visit for the 350th anniversary of Catholicism in the country, he discussed with U.S. officials the proposed visit of the Vietnamese president to the Vatican. He also discussed the possible resignation of Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, which the Pope later accepted in May 2010.

The archbishop faced health issues and became a controversial figure because of his efforts to recover church property confiscated by the communist government.

The WikiLeaks cables first mention Cardinal Law in a January 30, 2004 cable from the U.S. embassy at the Vatican.

That document recounts that Cardinal Law reviewed with the embassy’s political officer his mid-December 2003 visit to Vietnam at the invitation of its new cardinal, Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man.

At that time, Cardinal Law saw no signs that the Vietnamese government was “even inching towards” allowing the Church a role in civil society. He also lamented the backlog of students approved for Catholic seminary, a backlog due to “government obstruction,” the cable reports.

The cardinal related that he had been scheduled to say an informal and unpublicized Mass at a rural monastery in Vietnam. However, when the American cardinal arrived his hosts told him that the police had called a half hour before his arrival. They had forbidden the monastery to allow “the foreigner” to preside at Mass.

Cardinal Law did see some progress in Vietnam at the time. Cardinal Pham told him that the government gave “prompt permission” to transfer over 30 priests, including allowing three to study abroad.

He also reported many new conversions to Catholicism in the Diocese of Hung Hoa. Some converts were apparently tuning in to Evangelical Christian radio transmitted from outside the country, then seeking out the nearest Christian church.

The January 2004 cable, signed by then-U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, describes Cardinal Law as “a useful contact” for the State Department’s work in human rights and religious freedom.

“Though he is currently out of the spotlight due to the media's fixation on him as the chief scapegoat of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis, Law has long been active in international affairs and interreligious dialogue at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,” the cable summarizes. “He is also well-connected to the American Vietnamese community through his ministry to the immigrant communities of Boston.

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CNA contacted Cardinal Law for comment, but his secretary said that he “never speaks with the media.”

In a Sept. 7 response to CNA inquiries, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said:

“As is known, from the beginning the Holy See and the Press Office have made no comments on the leaks, which are documents for which we assume no responsibility.”

Cardinal Law resigned as Archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after intense controversy over his handling of sexually abusive priests.

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