After accepting the resignation of 92-year-old Cardinal Angelo Sodano as dean of the College of Cardinals, Pope Francis changed the norms of the office so that the dean would be elected to a five-year term renewable only once.
Cardinal Sodano, the former Vatican secretary of state, was elected dean in April 2005 after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean under St. John Paul II, was elected Pope Benedict XVI.
In his apostolic letter issued “motuproprio” (on his own accord), Pope Francis said that given the size of the College of Cardinals and the workload being dean entails, he decided it was best for the office to have a defined term of service. The letter was released by the Vatican Dec. 21 after Cardinal Sodano performed his last official task as dean by offering Pope Francis Christmas greetings on behalf of the cardinals and top officials of the Roman Curia.
Pope Francis used the occasion to express “my gratitude, including in the name of the members of the College of Cardinals, for the precious and punctual service he (Cardinal Sodano) has offered as dean for many years with availability, dedication, efficiency and a great ability to organize and coordinate.”
The dean is charged with officially informing the other cardinals and heads of state that a pope has died; he establishes the date the cardinals will begin their “general congregations” to discuss the current status and needs of the church; and he presides over those meetings before the cardinals enter the conclave to elect a new pope.
If the dean is under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to enter the conclave, he issues the oath of secrecy to the cardinals and determines whether the college is ready to begin the election. He also is the one who asks the person elected if he accepts and what name he wishes to use.
Cardinal Sodano was already over 80 when Pope Benedict resigned, so he was not in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Those duties were assumed by the sub-dean, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.There are these damaging allegations against the cardinal who for 16 years served as Vatican secretary of state. The two most serious cases involve his dealings with Father Maciel and his blocking of an investigation into Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the late archbishop of Vienna, who was found guilty of sexually abusing children in 1998.