The Shame of John Paul II: How the Sex Abuse Scandal Stained His Papacy

The Shame of John Paul II: How the Sex Abuse Scandal Stained His Papacy

The Shame of John Paul II: How the Sex Abuse Scandal Stained His Papacy

The pope failed to take decisive action in response to clear evidence of a criminal underground in the priesthood.


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.

* * *

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, 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.

Bishops look to the pope for leadership. But in the worst scandal of his papacy, John Paul ignored serious allegations of abuse against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the archconservative religious order known as the Legion of Christ. In fact, the pope defiantly praised the long-accused pedophile for six years after a group of Maciel’s victims filed a canon law case in 1998. The group sought his excommunication before Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was gradually assuming control over such proceedings.

Born in Mexico in 1920, Maciel founded the order in 1941. The Legion was based on papal loyalty, and John Paul returned the favor by giving it strong support during his papacy—a natural alliance, given that he shared the order’s militant anticommunism and its struggle to save the church from liberal drift, particularly liberation theology. John Paul saw young Legionaries, marching in pairs with short haircuts and double-breasted coats, as a sign of resurgent orthodoxy, of a church triumphant after the 1930s anticlerical violence in Mexico and postwar Communist persecution of the Polish church.

Maciel did advance work on John Paul’s 1979 trip to Mexico, a year after Juan Vaca, a former Legion priest, sent the Vatican a list of twenty of Maciel’s victims, including himself. Nothing happened. Vaca wrote again in 1989, including a long personal letter to the pope, again to no avail.

The greatest fundraiser of the modern church, Maciel targeted wealthy conservatives, singling out widows and wives of powerful men. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim was a Legion benefactor, as was William Casey, CIA director under Ronald Reagan. Casey and his wife funded a building on the Legion campus in Cheshire, Connecticut. Footage of Maciel and John Paul was pivotal to Legion fundraising, with the Legion sending VHS cassettes to targeted donors. One shows John Paul in 1993 at the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, telling crowds, “You are all sons and daughters of Father Maciel!” A 1994 papal letter the Legion placed in Mexican daily papers called Maciel “an efficacious guide to youth.” Maciel worked his donor base with constant travel. By 2006, with only 650 priests and 2,500 seminarians (the Jesuits had 16,000), the Legion had a $650 million budget, according to the Wall Street Journal, and a network of schools and colleges in Europe, Latin America and the United States—twenty-four elite prep schools in America alone.

* * *

On February 23, 1997, Gerald Renner and I published an investigation in the Hartford Courant of Maciel with on-the-record accounts by two Spaniards and seven Mexicans who accused him of abusing them when they were seminarians in Spain and Rome in the 1950s and ’60s. Boys cut off from family, awed by the charismatic leader called Nuestro Padre, they were stunned by his morphine addiction, bewildered as he whispered claims of his permission from Pius XII for sexual activity because of chronic pain. Maciel refused to be interviewed, but claimed innocence in a statement. The Vatican refused to make any comment.

William Donohue of the Catholic League responded immediately with a letter to the Courant, scoffing at the allegations. The order set up a website, LegionaryFacts, which charged the accusers—and us—with fomenting a conspiracy against Maciel. Father Richard John Neuhaus, an influential Catholic conservative and editor of the journal First Things, called the accusations “scurrilous” and proclaimed Maciel’s innocence “a moral certainty.” William Bennett, a national lecturer on ethics who later became a CNN analyst, also voiced support for the Legion. Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who lectured at the Legion university in Rome, derided the accusations and praised Maciel’s “radiant holiness.” George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul, weighed in for the Legion, too. These conservatives were in the pope’s corner: in the fall of 1997 John Paul had appointed Maciel to an important religious conference in Rome.

In October 1998 José Barba and another ex-Legionary who had been abused by Maciel flew to Rome. After leaving the Legion as a young man in 1962, Barba earned a doctorate from Harvard in Latin American studies and is now a professor at ITAM, a major university in Mexico City. On behalf of the nine men who had gone public in the Courant about Maciel’s abuse of them, Barba hired Martha Wegan, an Austrian canon lawyer in Rome who practiced in Vatican tribunals. Wegan filed a canonical grievance in 1998 seeking Maciel’s excommunication by Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Under the church’s monarchical system, the pope is the supreme arbiter of canon law. He can halt, reverse or remove any proceeding. Maciel had a powerful Vatican ally in Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, an office analogous to prime minister. In a 1999 letter to her clients, Wegan reported that the case had been tabled “for the time being…. In such a delicate situation, time must be allowed to play its role.” Barba explains, “Wegan told me for the first time—and to my enormous surprise—that Cardinal Angelo Sodano had pressed so that Cardinal Ratzinger wouldn’t proceed ahead with our case.”

Ratzinger, a moral absolutist who had persecuted liberal theologians, realized that the absence of a central system to defrock abusers was hurting the church. So in 2001 he persuaded John Paul to consolidate that authority in Ratzinger’s office—a move for which no one in the Roman Curia envied him. But by then, Maciel had spent heavily on favors to Vatican officials to insulate himself from punishment.

Sodano’s nephew, Andrea, worked on construction of a Legion university in Rome. “Cardinal Sodano helped change the zoning requirements to build the university,” says Glenn Favreau, a former seminarian who worked under Maciel before leaving the order in 1997. As I reported in the National Catholic Reporter last year, two priests on the project told Maciel that Andrea’s work was inadequate. “Pay him! You pay him!” Maciel is said to have yelled. Indeed they did.

Maciel approved cash gifts of $5,000 and $10,000 to Cardinal Sodano, according to these priests, former Legionaries who spoke on background for my article. They say Maciel ordered cash envelopes of $2,500 to $5,000 to cardinals who said Mass at Legion events. And they say he offered a Mercedes to the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, seeking the highest Vatican rank for the new university. Laghi spurned the offer. There has been no rebuttal to these allegations, and neither the Legion nor the Vatican has responded directly to the charges.

Maciel spared no expense in hosting events for church officials at the Legion center. “Sodano came over with his entire family, 200 of them, for a big meal when he was named a cardinal. And we fed them all,” recalls ex-seminarian Favreau, now an attorney in Washington, DC. “When Sodano became secretary of state, there was another celebration.” Sodano declined my interview requests.

The man closest to John Paul was his Polish-born secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz. Dziwisz oversaw the guest list of those given the rare privilege of attending the pope’s early Mass—British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family, for example. Two priests who left the Legion and who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from the Vatican told me in detailed interviews how Maciel supporters paid Dziwisz for the privilege. “A wealthy family from Mexico,” recounted one priest, “gave Dziwisz $50,000.” This was in 1997, after Maciel was accused by Barba and the other men in the Hartford Courant article. The priest spoke of many such transactions with Dziwisz. “It was always cash. And in dollars,” he said. Maciel pulled out the stops for a grand reception honoring Dziwisz when he became a bishop.

* * *

A second priest who steered Legion patrons’ money to Dziwisz said, “The expression [in Rome] is opere de carità: ‘We’re making an offering for your works of charity.’ In fact, you don’t know where the money is going. It’s an elegant way of giving a bribe.” As the abuse accusations against Maciel became known, the priest told me he “woke up and asked: Am I giving my life to serve God, or one man who had his problems? It was not worth consecrating myself to Maciel.” Both men left the Legion in disgust, though both remained priests. “Maciel wanted to buy power,” said the first cleric. “[Legion] superiors lie about money—where it comes from, where it goes, how it’s given.” Dziwisz, now a cardinal in Krakow, refused to be interviewed.

According to the first priest, Ratzinger gave a theology lecture at the Legion complex but refused an envelope with money.

In 2002 ABC reporter Brian Ross approached Ratzinger in front of his waiting limousine and asked about Maciel. A flustered Ratzinger slapped Ross’s hand and said, “Come to me when the moment is given—not yet.”

In late November 2004, with a beaming Sodano onstage, Maciel won praise yet again from John Paul, who had six months to live. By then Ratzinger realized that the next pope, whoever he might be, would be yoked to a scandal if the case languished; he ordered a canon lawyer on his staff, Charles Scicluna, to investigate. Among the many people who gave testimony to Scicluna in Rome, New York and Mexico City, thirty aging men told him about how Maciel abused them in seminary and about his morphine addiction. In 2006, the year after Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, the Vatican ordered Maciel out of active ministry for “a life of prayer and penance.” Maciel went to his birthplace in southwest Mexico—and a reunion with his daughter and her mother, a paramour from Acapulco. Photographs of them surfaced last year in a Mexican gossip magazine, two years after Maciel’s death.

In 2008 upon Maciel’s burial in Mexico—far from the grand tomb he’d built for himself in a basilica he had erected in Rome, anticipating his own canonization—the Legion website announced that the founder had gone to heaven. In 2010, after news of the daughter broke, the Legion apologized to its followers and, finally, to Maciel’s victims. Two grown sons of Maciel also came forward, alleging incest. In a move without precedent in modern church history, Benedict ordered an investigation of the entire religious order. The Vatican has since taken over the Legion in a kind of receivership.

The LegionaryFacts website disappeared after Maciel’s 2006 punishment; none of the conservative ideologues who had so staunchly defended him apologized to the victims, though George Weigel, who has a research chair at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, called for a Vatican investigation of the Legion in 2009.

Weigel got ten interviews with John Paul for his 992-page biography Witness to Hope (1999), which all but ignores the abuse crisis. Kwitny’s 1997 biography faults John Paul on that front, in an otherwise favorable portrait. Weigel’s 2010 sequel, The End of the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, suggests that the pope had “inadequate” information. John Paul, he intones, was “ill served by associates and subordinates who ought to have been more alert to the implications of [Maciel’s] cult of personality…. Despite the negative implications of John Paul’s reputation that some of [his] critics quickly drew, what was at work in this scandalous affair was deception in the service of the mysterium iniquitatis”—the mystery of evil. That’s it, folks. The pope who took on the Soviet empire was duped by the “mystery of evil.” Nothing about Sodano pressuring Ratzinger. Dziwisz, Weigel concludes, “was “susceptible to misreading personalities.”

“Beatification is a bitter pill for clergy victims because of John Paul II’s record of protecting abusers and neglecting victims,” states Terence McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability
.org. “John Paul received many letters from sexual victims which he simply ignored.” But apparently bad times must be forgotten now, as the media machinery focuses on the beatification. Since the 1990s, at least sixteen bishops and one cardinal (the late Hans Hermann Groer of Austria) abused children, “stepped down” and yet remained bishops in title. As Weigel now sings history for NBC, ceremonies will include Cardinal Dziwisz, Angelo Sodano (now dean of the College of Cardinals) and his successor as secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone, while archbishop of Genoa in 2003, wrote a glowing introduction to Maciel’s as-told-to memoir Christ Is My Life. If Bertone wasn’t paid he should have been, since he served as a canon lawyer for Ratzinger in the years when the Maciel case sat stale.

The beatification will include a French nun whose neurological illness was reportedly cured by a miraculous intervention after prayers to John Paul. This is sure to draw derision in some corners, but miracles are embedded in church history, and if the spirit of John Paul has healing power, we are a better world for it. The agony of Catholicism, however, calls for another healing—that of truth brought to bear on ecclesial powers, robed in shame, dripping with hypocrisy.

Saint Augustine put it well in City of God: “Justice is that virtue which gives everyone his due.”

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