Thursday. 30.03.2023

Child abuse cover-up scandal taints John Paul II's legacy

"John Paul, in many ways an admirable man, was willfully blind to the abuse of children and young people," the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) magazine wrote last week.
Books on Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II, seen in Krakow, Poland. Armin Weigel/dpa/file photo.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, massive crowds assembled in St Peter's Square for his funeral chanting "santo subito" - "sainthood now."

Fifteen years later, the iconic Polish pope once saluted as one of the towering figures of the late 20th century no longer cuts such a holy figure.

"There is no way anymore to escape the truth. John Paul, in many ways an admirable man, was willfully blind to the abuse of children and young people," the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) magazine wrote last week, reacting to a sensational Vatican report that identified John Paul II as a key culprit in the promotion of a notorious sexual predator, US ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The report stated that John Paul II gave McCarrick a cardinal's red hat in 2000 and made him Archbishop of Washington in 2001, disregarding multiple reports at the time that he had a habit of sleeping with young men; other anonymous letters from years before accused him of paedophilia.

McCarrick, 90, was kicked out of the Catholic Church only in 2019, after the Vatican's disciplinary office found him guilty of soliciting during confession and abusing adults and minors.

NCR called for a suppression of Saint John Paul II's "cult" - meaning that he should no longer be publicly celebrated with religious feasts or the naming of churches or schools after him.

"Abuse victims deserve no less," NCR wrote.

Canonized in 2014

John Paul II, born 100 years ago as Karol Wojtyla, was made a saint, or canonized, in 2014 by Pope Francis after the fast-tracking of his sainthood process, as demanded by funeral mourners.

Wojtyla had a near-record run of 26 years as pontiff during which he was instrumental in bringing down communist regimes in Eastern Europe and made historic outreach gestures to Muslims and Jews.

He is also remembered for a staunchly conservative approach to doctrine, and a dogged attachment to his duties despite a debilitating battle with Parkinson's disease in his twilight years.

Suppressing his cult would dim John Paul II's halo, yet there is no indication that the Vatican is considering doing so. Harsher forms of censure appear technically impossible.

"A saint cannot be de-canonized," theology and religious studies professor Massimo Faggioli says, while adding that "there is something like 'first class saints' and other saints."

Faggioli, a liberal Catholic who teaches at Villanova University in the United States, said McCarrick was one of several mistaken personnel decisions taken during John Paul II's papacy.

"The problem with John Paul II is that many other bishops’ appointments that he made and he was responsible for, have been a disaster. It is a well-known problem of his pontificate," he said.

Benedict XVI and Francis implicated

Benedict XVI and Francis were also implicated in the McCarrick report, according to which both knew of rumours surrounding the cardinal, but Benedict stopped short of fully investigating them, while Francis ignored them until more substantiated child abuse allegations surfaced in 2017.

George Weigel, a conservative US Catholic scholar and Wojtyla biographer, called McCarrick a "pathological" liar who was able to play the system.

"The simple fact is that pathological personalities lie and deceive people, even intelligent and saintly people, and that's what McCarrick was able to do," he told the National Catholic Register newspaper.

Weigel also suggested that Wojtyla's upbringing in communist Poland - where false slurs against clergy were common - made him dismissive of usually anonymous tips about suspected sexual abusers.

In Poland, where John Paul II is revered as a national hero, the head of the local bishops' conference, Poznan Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, said Wojtyla was "cynically deceived."

Tomasz Terlikowski, a Polish Catholic pundit, argued that at least some of the blame lies with John Paul II's entourage, starting with his private secretary, now-cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

Dziwisz, 81, was last week accused by a documentary aired by Polish broadcaster TVN24 of ignoring or covering up multiple clerical sexual abuse cases while serving as Wojtyla's right-hand man.

The film mentions the egregious example of Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial paedophile whom the Vatican sanctioned only after Wojtyla's death.

"At my house there's a portrait of John Paul II from his time as cardinal. And the portrait will continue to hang on my wall. Holiness does not mean infallibility," Terlikowski said.

However, he added: "As a Catholic, I have the certainty that John Paul II was close to Christ. But I am also aware that during his papacy he himself and those around him made huge mistakes."

Child abuse cover-up scandal taints John Paul II's legacy