Austrian papal contender prefers low profile but has been tested by controversy
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn strives for a low profile as leader of Austria's Roman Catholics, but that goal has not always been easy. He owes a key promotion 10 years ago to a pedophile scandal involving his predecessor and last year had to confront a child pornography scandal in a rural diocese.
Schoenborn, 60, is multilingual and has friends in the Vatican. He's a scholar, comfortable in the pulpit, and is respected by Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians. He refuses to comment publicly on his position as one of the favorites to succeed Pope John Paul II; friends say he would serve if chosen - but not eagerly.
The cardinal's spokesman, Erich Leitenberger, said Schoenborn was "amused" about media reports that he was a front runner.
Such reticence is not unusual. Schoenborn has said he would not speak to the media until after a new pontiff is chosen - in keeping with a quiet management style focused on steering the Austrian church around controversy.
That has not always been possible. The austere, soft-spoken cardinal owed his own climb to higher echelons of the Catholic hierarchy to the scandal involving his predecessor, Hans Groer, who was accused of abusing young boys.
Appointed Vienna's archbishop in 1995 to replace Groer, Schoenborn initially stayed silent. But he showed courage three years later, personally apologizing "for everything that my predecessors and other holders of church office committed against people in their trust."
In another instance reflecting his dislike of confrontation, he fired his reform-minded vicar, Helmut Schueller, one year after becoming cardinal in 1998 - by shoving a letter of dismissal under Schueller's door.
Yet, while grappling with last year's pornography scandal, he took on the Vatican.
"It's sad that it took so long to act," he said of Rome's reluctance to investigate the wrongdoing, saying later of the scandal: "The church is greater than its human weaknesses."
Ideologically, his tenure has been marked by a turn away from inner-church reform, disappointing Catholics looking for more rights for women or compromise on priesthood and marriage.
Instead he has focused toward respect for Catholic dogma - while understanding those who fall by the wayside.
"It is not easy for the church to find the right path between the ... protection of marriage and family on the one hand and ... compassion with human failings," he said last year, alluding to church opposition to - but his personal understanding of - divorce. His audience, at a funeral Mass for Austrian President Thomas Klestil, included both his widow and his divorced wife.
Born Jan. 22, 1945, into an aristocratic Bohemian family, Schoenborn's destiny appeared to have been influenced by his heritage - 19 of his ancestors were priests, bishops or archbishops.
After joining the Dominican order in 1963, he was ordained into the priesthood in 1970 by Cardinal Franz Koenig. Like most Austrians, Schoenborn idolized Koenig for his social engagement and courage to speak out on controversial issues. But Koenig's overwhelming personality initially eclipsed Schoenborn.
In the late 1960s, when Koenig played tennis in Schoenborn's hometown of Schrunns, Schoenborn "always fought to be Koenig's ball-boy," said Schoenborn confidant Heinz Nussbaumer in a telling reflection of the later relationship between the two churchmen.
Because of Koenig's strong persona, Schoenborn "had a difficult start," said Nussbaumer, publisher of a Catholic weekly. "But later he was able to develop his own personality."
His reputation as a scholar - and bridge builder to Orthodox Christians - began with a dissertation on icons even before he became a theology professor at the Catholic University of Fribourg, Switzerland in 1975.
He built on his image as an ecumenist promoting unity among different religions with visits to the patriarchs of Russia and Romania and three years ago met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the first trip of a Catholic church leader to the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution.
Normally above the fray of international politics, he spoke out sharply in 2002 about President Bush's inclusion of Iran with prewar Iraq and North Korea as part of the "the axis of evil."
"In the best case it's naive," he said, contending such comments could "alienate Iran's moderate factions."
Fluent in French and Italian, proficient in English and Spanish, he is well-connected in the Vatican, with friends that include Cardinals Godfried Danneels of Belgium and Jean-Marie Lustiger of France, also both papal contenders.
His past outreach to Israel also strengthens his papal chances. But his age could work against him - at 60 he is among the youngest of the major contenders.
GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press Writer