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.