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. Ron

    He can be the patron saint for child molesters since he did such a great job as pope covering up their crimes.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  2. Isabel

    Please look at "SPIRITLESSONS.COM". There's a girl who Jesus took to Hell so people could know it's real and she shares her story and what and who she saw there and one of the persons she saw in Hell was John Paul 11. Please read it. It will shock you.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • Jennifer

      Well, if it's on the internet, it's absolute truth, isn't it?

      May 1, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  3. Veritas

    Sainthood, what a joke... silly games for grown up people in funny dresses...

    May 1, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  4. Stephano

    Ok, morons, correct your headline on this one. He is not being Canonized, so he will not "become a saint on Sunday".
    Beatification is not the same as Canonization.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  5. missy12

    What hateful, disrespectful comments. If you don't believe, don't believe. But let those of us who love The Church enjoy this blessed moment. I was raised a Catholic. The Church I was raised in was inclusive, loving and supportive. It's helped me through difficult times and has enriched my life. I was never molested, never neglected and my family is closer because of our faith. I am not in denial about creeps who molest children, whether they are priests or not. They deserve to be punished, not protected. I hope they'll all be brought to justice. But, I have seen the good The Church has done in my life and in the lives of many others. Throughout my life I've been taught at church to help others – to donate my time and to do some good. I'm sick and tired of the attacks on The Church. Those who love the Church should defend it, so that's what I'm doing.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • Jesu

      we just want you to wake up to WHAT IS, and stop spreading the fear and hate. The only problem is this world is fear, which religion is all about promoting. without fear there is only love.

      May 1, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  6. Someone who thinks

    I beleive that one of the reasons we are in such crisis int he world, it is becuase we always look for the negative in everything. What harm does it do for the Catholic Church to raise John Paull II to be beatified? doesnt it show that in spite of our humanity we can aspire to holiness? why can we not be positive and look for the good? Its about time we learn to honor God and people, just remember what the scriptures teach us, no matter what faith we practice: "with the measure that you measure you will be measure back.." I would hate to have to be measure by your measure, it would be a lost cause.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  7. Cass

    So how many of you traveled and inspired as many people as he did, saved the lives of several Jews during the Holocaust, brought thousands of people into the priesthood, helped bring down the walls of Communism, and did this all while also being an accomplished writer/composer/poet, confessing 2 hours daily b/c of not feeling he was doing enough, and then dying of Parkisons? None? Yeah, shut up.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  8. mike

    St. John Paul II, the patron saint of pederasts

    April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  9. Nestor

    My bible says that all true Christians are saints. They are not selected by a group of men, they are selected by Christ.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
    • Mike

      They should be selected by a group of men, not Christ. Christ would just mess it up.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  10. Seriously

    I don't see how anyone who is not Catholic has any say in who becomes a Saint. And I don't understand why any of the non-religious even care. It seems to me that, the if Catholics around the world want to make John Paul II a Saint in their religion then they have that right no matter what everyone has to say about it. Some people believe that JFK was one of the best president's in United States History, and it has been proven that he had extra-marital affairs. Joe DiMaggio is in the Hall of Fame for baseball and he also had an affair. Both of them with Marilyn Monroe, who has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Ray

      Bingo, if your not Catholic, then stfu. It doesn't pertain to you. So really I should just stfu myself shouldn't I?

      April 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • popeye1128

      I declare pork is chicken. My right. Thanks you for explaining this, I think.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Monte

      It is much more serious due to the fact they invoke God and Christ, they make a claim to represent them in some way, they do not of course, however many do believe.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • Kelly

      What is your point? Are you suggesting that the former Pope had an affair with Marilym Monroe? Gross!

      May 1, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Malin


      Please. It doesn't matter if you agree or disagree with what Catholicism is (or was), the historical fact remains Chistendom wouldn't've survived the fifteen-hundred years it took protestants to invent themselves without the Catholic Church citing God and Christ.

      May 1, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  11. Truth

    According to the King James Holy Bible, if he wasn't a saint before he died, he certainly can't be made one after his death.
    We are saved by FAITH in Jesus Christ ONLY, not by ANY works. If any one of us caused the healing of 10 million people, it would not be good enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. NO ONE can EARN salvation. Except a person be Born Again he can no way enter into Heaven. To the Roman Catholic Church, neither your church or your Council have the authority to declare anyone a saint. When ANY PERSON chooses to believe on Jesus Christ as their Saviour, God the Father imputes onto that person the Righteousness of Christ. They are made a saint and child of God immediately by the Father not by the Roman Catholic Church.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Peter E

      The King James is a protestant version of the Bible. Why do you think the Catholic Church needs to follow that?

      April 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • Lovin'Life

      Truth, while I agree with your take on sainthood, did you know that the Roman Catholic Church over saw the translation of The King James Version?

      April 30, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Lovin'Life

      Peter, actually it is not...see my above post to Truth...I encourage you to google this matter

      April 30, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • smmoon

      I agree with you 100 percent! Jesus is our one and only savior. Through him, is the ONLY way that we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Not through having the pope as the saint..-.- If they heard themselves...

      April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • VelveteenLady

      Your argument assumes that the reader believes what is in the Bible, or at least takes the Bible literally. Many of us believe neither; therefore, your argument is moot.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • Peter E

      Lovin' I am not sure what you are refering to. Not ONE source from your ever-so-reliable google search says that the Catholic Church translated this Bible. Even IF it did, your argument does not refute the point that the King James version is NOT used by the Catholic Church!

      May 1, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • Jennifer

      Except we're talking about Roman Catholics, not Protestants, so they get to define how they run their church by Catholic, not Protestant, rules. This is not a difficult concept to grasp.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  12. Ethan

    So, he can perform these "trinket miracles" from the grave, but cannot save innocent children from abuse while he is alive? I think that says it all.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Ray

      Contrary to popular belief, the Pope is not superman who travels around the world at moments notice to save all the innocent children of the world.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Ethan

      So, Ray, you're basically saying that someone, once dead and supposedly gifted with supernatural powers that are not bound by the laws of nature, did not have the simple nature or will to deal with the abuse in a humane and decent way while he was alive? That sounds like such a cop out. Too bad the victims of abuse do not have the benefit of "miraculously" having their abuse undone by this so called saint.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Once the church was aware of the scope of the problem, JP2 was the guy who headed new initiatives to prevent abuse in the church. The church is an enormous, world-wide organization with a complex hierarchy for each diocese in each city in each country in the world where there is a Catholic following. It would be impossible for the man at the top to know every single detail of what was going on in each tier of the administrative offices of the church. Most of the abuses that were covered up were covered up on a local level, not ordered by the sitting Pope, and some of the abuse cases that were uncovered happened before JP2 was even elected Pope.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  13. Maurice

    These Roman Catholic saintifying processes are so Mechanical – material – anything but spiritual. Either somebody's good deeds way outweigh their bad deeds, or they don't. So a bunch of "celibate" old men are supposed to have the power to give the spirit of some dead guy who died many years ago the power to somehow hear the prayers of people and in some way supernaturally answer them? I thought Lord of the Rings was FAKE AS HELL, but it is supposed to be fiction. AND THIS? I guess it proves that brains can evolve into feces.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  14. Mr. Ombsbudsman

    CNN Editors... Please fix the front page summary of this story. John Paul will not "be made a saint Sunday." He is being Beautified, which is step one. I believe another confirmed miracle is necessary for sainthood.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • Mick

      You mean beatified, not beautified.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
    • Wordy Woodpicker

      Yep, Mick, and he means 'Ombudsman' not 'Ombsbudsman' - sorry Mr. O, you'll never be an editor.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  15. popeye1128

    Wow! Brainwashing is alive and well. Could someone please explain the difference between a cult and recognized religion for me? One is accepted by mainstream society and the other isn't? I don't know.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Dave


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

      Difference ? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

      April 30, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  16. Mr Mark

    Miracles = Make Believe.

    What's so hard to understand about that?

    April 30, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  17. BobMc

    John Paul II will not become a Saint on Sunday as stated in the CNN front page. He will be beatified, which is the first step towards sainthood.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  18. Pope on a Rope

    I guess all it takes is money.

    This guy spewed bigotry and sat complacent while thousands of young boys were molested all over the world. And he gets to be a Saint? This certainly diminishes the notion of Sainthood. Mother Teresa I can see, but this guy, NO WAY.

    April 30, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Ray

      Well let's see...did you do anything to help those boys who were molested by priest? Probably not, you sat complacent. which according to your logic, makes you a criminal who needs to be roped.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • VelveteenLady


      April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Mother Theresa ran hospitals where they withheld pain medication from people dying from AIDS in order to punish them for having it. Mother Theresa isn't, to this Roman Catholic, someone to be admired.

      May 1, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  19. Lovin'Life

    Haven't any of you seen "The Tudors" and now the "Borgias"? The Catholic church is just one of many sick perversions of Christianity...created for the sole purpose of making money and controlling the masses...

    April 30, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • Monte

      Very true.

      April 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Malin

      Because, obviously, television is the best chaperone for historical knowledge. I mean, OMG! Did you see that historical record of those people caught on an island?!?! Or how about the thrilling day-by-day account of how businessman Donald Trump runs his empire with Gary Busey by his side? I'm not going to defend the Renaissance Church, but please, do everyone a favour and crack a history book before spewing your ignorance. It'll at least make your cluelessness a little more entertaining.

      May 1, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  20. Rommel

    Wow, you people need to read your bible and history a little better. If you people reflect American believes, it is no wonder we're called ugly Americans.

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

      All should be aware, soon, none of these discussions will be relevant, even in this forum where it is strictly entertainment. The UN will soon put locks on the doors of all church's, and many a paid ear tickler will be homeless and without a "job".

      May 1, 2011 at 12:05 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.