April 27th, 2011
11:10 AM ET

Abuse crisis fuels debate over John Paul II’s legacy

By John L. Allen, Jr., CNN Senior Vatican Analyst

Rome (CNN) - John Paul II was a rock star of a pope, arguably the most effective ambassador of religious belief in a highly secular age. Yet in the years since his death in April 2005 an undercurrent of doubt and concern has emerged related to his handling of the problem of priestly sex abuse, the most serious crisis to rock Catholicism in centuries.

New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd recently articulated the verdict among some detractors of the late pope: “How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?”

While ambivalence about his record on the abuse crisis may not call into question his personal holiness or his towering accomplishments, it’s become an unavoidable chapter of the John Paul story, representing probably the single biggest question mark as his Sunday beatification - the final step before formal sainthood - approaches.

Critics point both to policies and to individual cases which, they believe, illustrate a pattern of denial on John Paul’s watch.

In the handful of instances during the John Paul years in which local bishops tried to formally expel abusers from the priesthood, in a process known as laicization, the Vatican often urged caution – not to excuse abuse, but to defend the priesthood.

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Key officials in John Paul’s papacy also expressed reservations about policies that would have required reporting abuse to police.

A Colombian Cardinal whom John Paul tapped to head a Vatican office responsible for policy questions about the priesthood, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, actually wrote to a French bishop in 2001 to congratulate him for refusing to report a priest charged with abuse.

Castrillón was also the official behind a now-infamous 1997 Vatican letter to the Irish bishops expressing opposition to their “mandatory reporter” policy.

The case of the late Mexican priest Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a religious order called the Legionaries of Christ, is often cited by critics. In 2006, the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had been guilty of sexual abuse of former members, as well as having children out of wedlock with women with whom he maintained long-term relationships.

Over the years, Maciel was a favorite of John Paul II because of his loyalty to Rome and his success in generating vocations to the priesthood.

A similar case involves Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna, Austria, who died in 2003. Groer resigned in 1995 after facing charges of abuse, but was not subjected to a church penalty.

In May 2010, Groer’s successor as Cardinal of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn, said that a top official under John Paul II had blocked the investigation. (Schonborn later apologized for publicly reprimanding a fellow cardinal, but never retracted the charge.)

Defenders of John Paul II generally make two points.

First, they say, the Church has been on a learning curve about priestly sex abuse and that it’s unfair to judge John Paul by today’s standards.

In fact, it was John Paul II who kick-started the process of chuch reform in 2001 by issuing a new set of rules centralizing responsibility for the crisis in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful doctrinal office headed at the time by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul also approved an expedited process for weeding abusers out of the priesthood.

If things slowed down from 2001 to 2005, they say, that’s largely explicable by the late pope’s long illness as a result of his Parkinson’s disease – a period in which his primary contribution was no longer governance, but offering the world an example of how to bear suffering with dignity.

Second, his fans argue, the crisis has to be understood in the context of John Paul’s reform of the Catholic priesthood. By 1978, when John Paul was elected, more than 45,000 men had left the priesthood since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

John Paul turned that around, offering a compelling personal example of priestly life and inspiring a new generation eager to stand “in the person of Christ.” Priests who take that charge seriously, defenders of John Paul II say, are less likely to commit abuse.

To focus on individual cases such as Maciel rather than on John Paul’s overall approach to priestly life, according to papal biographer George Weigel, is “grotesquely disproportionate from any serious historical point of view.”

There’s no reason to believe the Catholic sexual abuse crisis is nearing an end. Just days ago, a federal judge in Oregon directed the Vatican to turn over documents in a lawsuit related to a priest accused of abuse who died in 1992. It’s the first time an American court has issued such an order, and it could trigger a diplomatic row, since the Vatican is a sovereign state under international law.

Such ferment will likely keep debate over John Paul’s record alive among victims, lawyers, historians and pundits.

So far, however, that debate doesn’t seem to be putting much of a dent in popular enthusiasm for the former pope. A Marist College/Knights of Columbus poll released this week found that 74% of Americans, and 90% of American Catholics, regard John Paul II as a worthy candidate for beatification.

In Rome, more than two million people are expected to take part in beatification-related activities this week, and there’s a cottage industry of new books, calendars, keychains, documentaries, and other paraphernalia memorializing John Paul II.

The Vatican has always insisted that declaring a pope a saint isn’t to ratify every policy choice of his pontificate. Rather, it means that despite whatever failures occurred, he was at bottom a holy man. When it comes to John Paul II, plenty of people still seem eager to say, “Amen.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Pope Benedict XVI • Pope John Paul II • Vatican

soundoff (162 Responses)
  1. jefffbo

    Hey, what ever floats the evil empire's boat..... I doubt any person from a catholic background is responsible for miracles, they are responsible for perversions and every satanic way possible... As far as this pope goes, when was he ever awake to do a miracle anyway ?

    April 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • tsar140

      No Cathoic church, no Bible...they wrote it and their bishops (along with the Orthodox) decided which books went into it and which books stayed out. Even Martin Luther admited that he was whole dependent upon the Papists for the Bible.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  2. Scott A

    Glad to see pedophilia-loving priests finally have themselves a saint (he certainly looked out for them when he was alive). Making John Paul II a saint is further proof how messed up religion is.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  3. Bob Decker

    Another saint. You never can get too many. Never mind the thousands of abused kids he did NOTHING to help. How about John Paul I that was murdered in his bed. Birthers how about checking his death certificate. All Popes suck.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  4. Rene

    Someone please tell me what this man did for God? Who is he to be exalted before man? an idolater? There is no biblical basis for this, instead, the bible condemns these practices. Read your bible people, God makes it very clear. Let the dead worship the dead. And the ones that live in Christ, worship the living Christ, Jesus. If you disagree make sure you post biblical references.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • tsar140

      He destroyed communism in Poland..and by extention throughout Eastern Europe. Over a million poles turned out when he visited in 1979, the communists crapped themselves. Then his church protected Solidarity for 8 years while the Polish secret police tried to hunt them down. Not bad on that score.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • CaringOne

      It isnt a biblical issue at all. Lots of things in Christianity(or other religions) are done because it makes people feel better. WHy? I dont know why. Why do pentecostals think that you shouldnt cut your hair, or Jehovah Witness believe a certain number will only go to heaven or Mormans believe that you can pray a soul into heaven after death? It is more of a personal choice and some can and some cant find references to correct or incorrect.
      Most things that humans do are for the living mental health....or in other words...what makes them feel better about things. This Pope spent most of his popehood(is that a word?) trying to bridge the gap between nations that could never make things work, he spent time(most of his time) praying for people he never even knew. If you want to quote the bible....even Jesus did this, did he not? And didnt many people think that he shouldnt be thought of in high status? If you lived in those days, you most likely would have criticized those who thought he was a saint.
      No, John Paul wasnt the Christ from the bible but out of all the humans on earth, he and all popes as well as many others do like a "christlike" life...does he not? Who among us spend our every waking hour doing things for others, praying for others, trying to do something all over the world to bring peace and go to bed at night with the burden of the world not gaining that peace...yet the people expecting perfection from a human.

      I think not many.

      May 1, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  5. soyouknow

    hey you know that old women who claimed she "pray for the pope to fix her ""BLIND EYE"" she claims the pope did the "miracle too:" LOL right!!! ......what a coincidence..
    I think I saw her on one of those half time football commercials too...

    April 30, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  6. CaringOne

    I honestly dont think that the people around him let him know how serious this crisis was, if they let him know at all. He was really sick for the last year of his life(even his last mass was so hard to understand) and it is my understanding that he spent mostof his days in prayer at the time that this was top news. I just dont believe, as this man spent so much time helping the world through many crises, that he really knew that this was going on.

    Be that as it may, noone knows what he knew. Hes gone, and by the laws of beatification, he does qualify. Who knows if he knew and ignored or if it was the cardinals(who take care of the church business) that did the moving around and dealing with this crisis. Id love to hear, on here, from someone who was there!

    April 30, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • CaringOne

      To Add:

      For a simpler add on...its kind of like that show "Undercover Boss" (not meant as disrespect). The CEO generally takes care of the top business, the relations with countries, the upper business that only he/she can take care of. They dont always know what goes on within the "company" as their subordinates(again, no disrespect) take care of this business...even if they dont do a good job or they handle it totally wrong.
      To put it simpply...IT isnt our presidents fault if an Alaskan town mayor was to commit a crime, nor would he be the one to handle this punishment. Same deal.
      This man was a great ambassador, as well as a great man despite what the lowers did or did not do. Dont blame the man for something that most likely wasnt his choice to choose at the time. If you dont know the politics(and yes, in Rome, there is no seperation of church and state)then there really isnt a need for you to comment...unless you educate yourself first. The world is full of ignorance on matters...this doesnt warrant that.

      This is a blessed event and I am so thankful to be here to witness it and hope that I can be here to witness his journey to sainthood completed!

      April 30, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  7. Good God!

    What's the rush into getting him into sainthood...it's not like he has an expiration date where he's at....I wonder if he will read about it in the Heavenly Gazette.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ok, that was funny.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  8. mango

    hahahahaha, what a joke! Does anybody really believe this horsehockey? I guess being a pedophile is a requirement for this religion, gets you closer to gawd.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  9. mark

    i see the bizarre tradition of the roman senate electing emperors to god status still exists?

    April 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  10. Paul

    Beatification is not the final determination of sainthood. PJP II will be beatified, which means "blessed' and he can be referred to by that name. He has not been "canonized" which is the final step in the Catholic Church to be declared a saint. CNN get your story correct, please.

    April 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  11. TPF

    He did nothing to the molesting priests except protect them and move them around. That, my friend is not Saint material.
    If he could hae kept all that under the rug he would have. That is true sinner.

    April 30, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Gene Brady

    That Pope, THIS Pope, it doesn't matter because their "job" is to protect the church's wealth. They can't protect its legacy, only its wealth at the expense of children. Many, many children. This seems more like the church of SATAN, does it not?

    April 30, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Evan

      The church is the most giving organization in the world. Only a fool would call that greed.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  13. Jeff

    Not just JP's papal legacy but the entire Roman Catholic Church. How a governing body could allow rapist and child molesters to so easily move about the world with little fear of legal or religious sanction is beyond reasoning. With America and Ireland now exposing the molestations that happened over the last 100 years, more are sure to follow. Africa will probably be next. Shame on the John Paul, shame on the Church and shame on God for allowing this to happen in 'His' name via 'His' representatives on Earth.

    April 30, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  14. sanjosemike

    Above all, the catholic church had and has an obligation to obey the laws of the country they are in. By shielding, protecting and hoarding preists who attacked children, they did not obey the law. Consequently, until it is shown otherwise, they should not have the right to be considered tax-exempt. They should be closed down until they convince authorities they are obeying the law.

    And that starts by sending Bernard Law back for prosecution, instead of shielding him at the Vatican. He must face charges for what he did.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • icowrich

      "the catholic church had and has an obligation to obey the laws of the country they are in."

      Actually, part of the problem is the Vatican is a sovereign state, and there was some confusion regarding which state had jurisdiction in the case of offending priests. JPII resolved that in 2001, but, until then, nobody could tell you which laws were applicable when the offense occurred in a Roman Catholic church by a Roman Catholic priest.

      April 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  15. PhilG.

    The entire Catholic church was damaged by the abuse charges.

    Pope John Paul II was not privy to the depth of the charges and the extent of the damage that was going on.

    Instead of trying to crap on the legacy of a man that brought hope to millions of Catholic followers,why not move forward and stop every Catholic preist that abuses the laws of God and man to victimize anyone?

    Move forward,find those being used by Satan to damage young souls and the Church itself and get them where they can be stopped and get the help they definitely better get.

    It's easy to crap on people defintiely much harder to get out there find these messed up people and get them where they cannot hurt anyone anymore.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Baloney. He was the executive of his church. He was responsible for what went on under his aegis. The "buck stops there." He was the captain of the ship.

      If it wasn't his responsibility, whose was it? Santa Claus? Your non-existant god or gods?

      April 30, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Evan

      Amen! He was an awesome man and cannot be blamed for the horrid things individual members of the church did.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • OldFatChick

      How can you say he didn't know? How can anyone defend this protector of child molesters? This is one of many reasons the Catholic Church has failed. They have failed women and children for centuries. Birth control, women in the priesthood, manipulation of the Bible, all reasons the Catholic Church needs a total overhaul if not eradication.

      May 1, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  16. Carol

    The late Pope promtoed cardinal Law AFTER it was proventhat Law spent nearly thirty years protecting pedophile preists – that alone – not de-frocking, not forcing him into retirement but promoting Law to a position at the Vatican, alone should dispell any "saint" like tak of John Paul II. Law not only protect those sickos, even after time and time again parishoners, church workers presits and other Cardinals warned him, he bankrupt the Boston Archdicoses. And John Paul II thought that was worthy of being one of the eight Cardinals assigned to the Vatican.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Carol, you're correct. Bernard Law belongs in prison. Not the Vatican. His protection by the Vatican is the Vatican's shame. Woe be to Catholics who still benefit the church with their money. It is going to support those who break the law, even now.

      April 30, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  17. LouAz

    To this minute, not a single priest, bishop, arch bishop, cardinal, poop, any official of any kind anyplace in the world has called any local government official and reported that one of their priest may have molested a child. NONE ! The legacy of john paul II lives on.

    April 30, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Evan

      That's because church officials don't call the police on people in general.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • tsar140

      That is actually not true. I know of at least two cases where the local bishop have called in law enforcement. It happens all the time.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • LouAz

      tsar140 – Please tell us where this happened. I don't think "it happens all the time". I don't think it happens at all. Don't tell us how some bishop cooperated AFTER a pedopriest was reported to police by a victim or their family.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  18. keylargo

    The revelations concerning Catholic priests and child abuse not only "tarnished" John Paul, it smeared him and the entire church with excrement. The Vatican continues to engage in a cover up, and this "beatification" garbage is just more "smoke".

    April 30, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      And...don't forget, the Vatican also shields people like Bernarn Law who aided and abetted child s****l abuse and still protect him from lawful prosecution.

      April 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • tcaros

      The Catholic Church claims 1 billion members, souls, worldwide. If the devil wanted to deceive people he would craft a religion that fools people by replacing God with pagan worship of Mary and the Saints, replaced Jesus with priests, and the finished work on the cross with sacraments.

      Catholics are the most difficult people to convince that they are wrong. They are blinded like the Jews.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  19. JPII fan

    Praised be Jesus Christ and his Divine Mercy for his gift to the entire word in Blessed John Paul the Great!

    April 30, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • chico


      April 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bob from Pittsburgh

      John Paul II was involved in the death of John Paul the first, and when it came to abuse by priest not only he ignored the plea of innocent children, but hid and protected the perpetrators, and now some immoral followers want to call him a saint..!

      He was nor he is a saint, he was an animal that did nothing to protect the most vulnerable of the Church.. John Paul I know you are in hell... and should remain there for eternity

      April 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • marin89

      Hey Bob, I think you spelled your name backwards. Also, you forgot to mention that John Paul II wasn't able to eradicate world hunger and global warming in his time. And those grammar lessons you've been taking, they're really helping. You doing much gooder!!

      April 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Susan

      Bob from Pittsburgh is absolutely right. John Paul was an enabler of pedophilia within his cult and is no closer to a saint than the devil himself.

      April 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Jesu

      you foolish small minded nothing.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:58 am |
  20. Juna

    Here's a little song that says it all:

    "Papa, Papa," his children cried – "Papa they're hurting us, please come to our side!" But did Papa draw near, did Papa even hear? And when at last their sufferings were known, Papa the savior was silent as a stone.

    April 29, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Beautiful post Juna. Those who depend on a non-existent god are at as much danger if they (also) depend on a so-called religious prelate who prays to a god that does not exist. Silence in the face of suffering. Ignoring the law. Protecting offenders.

      That is the legacy of the popes and the catholic church.

      April 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • dfgdg

      Papa did em up the but didnt he ?

      April 30, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • Jesu

      well it's not as much a non existent god as a disillusioned anthropomorphic interpretation of WHAT IS. Funny how our little minds think we're smart enough to explain everything. stupid little minds. pope, such a foolish sad little dude. pathetic little retard.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:57 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.