VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Monday issued an unprecedented rebuke of a top cardinal who had accused the retired Vatican No. 2 of blocking clerical sex abuse investigations, publicly dressing down a man who had been praised for his criticism of church abuse cover-ups.

The silencing of Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna and long considered a papal contender, drew heated criticism from clerical abuse victims. They said the Vatican should be honoring Schoenborn, not publicly humiliating him, for his calls for greater transparency and demands for a crackdown on priests who rape and sodomize children.

Schoenborn has also called for an open discussion of priestly celibacy – views that the Vatican said he “clarified” Monday during an audience with the pope.

As it admonished Schoenborn, the Vatican appeared caught on the defensive on two other fronts in the ongoing sex abuse scandal: it remained locked in a diplomatic tiff with Belgium over a raid on church offices last week, during which police detained bishops and opened a crypt in search of church abuse documents. And it bristled at the U.S. Supreme Court decision to let a sex abuse lawsuit in Oregon naming the Holy See go ahead.

Schoenborn had accused the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in April of blocking a church inquiry into the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was accused by victims in 1995 of abusing boys at a seminary – rocking the Austrian church and costing Groer his job.

Schoenborn also accused Sodano of causing “massive harm” to victims when he dismissed claims of clerical abuse as “petty gossip” on Easter Sunday.

Only the pope can level such accusations against a cardinal, the Vatican said Monday. And it sought to clarify the “petty gossip” comment, noting that the pope himself had used the same phrase a week earlier, referring to the need to have “courage to not be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinions.”

The phrase, and Sodano’s repetition of it, had sparked widespread criticism that the Vatican simply didn’t appreciate the significance of the abuse scandal.