The Shame of John Paul II: How the Sex Abuse Scandal Stained His Papacy
The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute assisted in a section of this article, drawn from Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, to be published June 7 by Crown.
On May 1, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify his predecessor, John Paul II, at a huge ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Beatification, the final step before canonization, or sainthood, ennobles the deceased as “blessed,” or worthy of veneration. Authorities have prepared for a million visitors to the weekend events.
Most beatification cases are decided decades after the person dies—a sign of Vatican probity on whether a life achievement, nominated by religious colleagues, merits a path to sainthood. The timetable is at the pope’s discretion. In this case, Benedict’s decision to fast-track John Paul’s case has drawn a chorus of criticism from prominent Catholics and survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.
Should a pope who turned his back on the worst crisis in modern Catholic history be exalted as a saint? Lawsuits by victims, numerous prosecutions and news coverage of bishops who enabled abuse are the shadow story of John Paul’s twenty-six-year pontificate, during which time he responded to continuing allegations of clergy abuse with denial and inertia. American dioceses and religious orders alone have spent nearly $2 billion on legal actions and treatment of sex offenders, an aching scandal at incalculable cost to the church’s stature.
John Paul II has been widely hailed as a commanding figure on the global stage, a catalyst in the fall of Soviet Communism and a champion of human rights. His stirring homilies on freedom in his first papal trip back to Poland in 1979 galvanized the Solidarity union movement. On his 1987 trip to Chile, during the Pinochet dictatorship, John Paul said Mass for a vast throng and “presented speaker after speaker who complained of censorship, torture, and political murder,” wrote Jonathan Kwitny in his 1997 biography Man of the Century. John Paul’s trip was a turning point in Chile’s transition to democracy. On the other hand, the pope looked askance at liberation theology, believing the Latin American grassroots movement to be an extension of the Marxism that had subjugated Poland. And he was conflicted on the role of progressive Latin American clergy who were allied with the poor and resisted persecution by death squads.
Moreover, on the greatest internal crisis facing the church, the pope failed, time and again, to take decisive action in response to clear evidence of a criminal underground in the priesthood, a subculture that sexually traumatized tens of thousands of youngsters. Despite a 1984 warning memo from the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, and a ninety-three-page report on the problem co-written by Doyle in 1985, which was sent to every American bishop, John Paul ordered no outreach to victims, no binding policy to rid the priesthood of deviants. In 1989 the US conference of bishops sent experts in canon law to Rome, seeking a streamlined process for defrocking child molesters rather than waiting for the byzantine Vatican bureaucracy and final word from the pope. John Paul refused. Litigation and prosecutions spread, but the pope remained passive.
As victim-survivors found their way to lawyers, a train of legal discovery in the United States, Ireland and other countries yielded documents linking complicit bishops, religious-order superiors and Vatican officials in the concealment of sex offenders. On April 21 in an important lawsuit against the Vatican by a man who was abused by a predator priest, a federal district court in Portland, Oregon, ordered church officials in Rome to turn over documents for discovery. District Judge Michael Mosman said, “Plaintiff has proffered evidence that tends to show the Holy See knew of [the priest’s] propensities and that in some cases, the Holy See exercised direct control over the conduct, placement, and removal of individual priests accused of similar sexual misconduct.” The US Supreme Court declined to hear the Holy See’s appeal for dismissal, which was based on a claim of sovereign immunity.
On John Paul’s role in the church’s long nightmare, the Rev. Richard McBrien, a distinguished University of Notre Dame theologian, wrote, “Indeed, he had a terrible record, full of denial and foot-dragging, on the greatest crisis to confront the Catholic Church since the Reformation of the 16th century.”
John Paul’s beatification may give a media boost to the Vatican, but Pope Benedict’s negligence earlier in his career has also done severe damage to the papacy; media coverage last year spotlighted how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict was then known, failed to dismiss several known abusers. How can any pope be a voice for peace, proclaim the sanctity of life and speak for human rights while giving de facto Vatican immunity to bishops and cardinals who concealed child molesters? John Paul bequeathed a quagmire to Benedict: an archaic tradition of Vatican tribunals subservient to bishops and high church officials.
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Indeed, the Vatican has a dysfunctional justice system. Consider the case of Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop in 2002 amid a Boston Globe investigation reporting allegations of more than ninety clergy perpetrators under his authority. That number has grown to 204, according to BishopAccountability.org, an online archive on the church crisis. In May 2004 the archdiocese, facing a $4 million deficit and a $37 million loan to repay, announced a wave of parish closings to make up the shortfall. The next day came news that Law was bound for Rome to become pastor of the historic basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, with an estimated $12,000 monthly salary, according to the New York Times. He now sits on the Vatican’s board of the Congregation for Bishops, which chooses new bishops.
In a subtle, indirect way, the Vatican signaled its realization that the abuse crisis would have posed serious problems for John Paul’s beatification if his overall record had been considered. On April 1 the Catholic News Service reported from Rome, “Pope John Paul II is being beatified not because of his impact on history or on the Catholic Church, but because of the way he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, said Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.”
What thick irony. Clearly, John Paul was one of history’s great popes. As an evangelist he visited 129 countries, more than all previous popes combined. He canonized more saints than all of his predecessors. A staunch traditionalist on sexual issues and theology, he nevertheless emphasized human rights as a political value. In making personal piety a standard for sainthood, the Vatican is restricting scrutiny of John Paul’s record in order to whitewash embarrassing information about his greatest failure.
John Paul is not the only former pope about whom this is a burning issue. Many Jewish leaders as well as Catholics oppose a Vatican move to canonize Pius XII, citing his wartime reticence on Nazi atrocities. Although recent scholarship has found that Pius took some initiatives to help Jews avoid death camps, his silence in the face of Hitler’s crimes is a human rights issue. Moral justice is a force in historical memory; we cannot change the past, but we must account for those who had power yet failed to forcefully resist great evil.
In the 1990s John Paul began to make a famous series of apologies for past church sins, particularly anti-Semitism, calling for “purification of the historical memory.” He apologized for church racism, the Inquisition, the Crusades, to Galileo, and to Indians—a stirring line of atonement. But he did not include children abused by priests. Finally, after extensive media coverage in the United States, Canada, Australia and Ireland, he did voice concern for victims—but he also scolded the media, accusing them of sensationalism. John Paul’s myopia stemmed from a chivalrous idea of religious life, born of his years as the leader of a Polish church that functioned in opposition to the Communist regime. Under such harsh conditions, he considered church unity paramount, and he saw that unity vindicated when the Iron Curtain fell.
In April 2002, as coverage of the scandals hit critical mass, an ailing John Paul, bloated from treatment for Parkinson’s disease, summoned the American cardinals to Rome. Reading a statement for cameras, the pope called clergy abuse “an appalling sin” and said the priesthood had no room for such men; he also called on “the power of Christian conversion,” implying redemption for sex offenders. Instead of promulgating a clear policy on defrocking abusers, he absolved the bishops of their “generalized lack of knowledge,” faulting “the advice of clinical experts.” He thus put the blame on therapists rather than on the bishops who recycled child molesters.
In June 2002 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a youth protection charter, declaring “zero tolerance” for any cleric who abuses a child. The charter sparked important preventive training in Catholic schools; bishops removed hundreds of predators who had evaded prosecution. But the charter lacks enforcement teeth, as revealed by recent news from Philadelphia, where twenty-one priests were removed and four others indicted only after a stinging grand jury report. And the charter has no oversight of bishops or cardinals. Despite its flaws the charter does represent progress, and yet the Vatican itself still has nothing comparable to it.