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. lanboodan

    All are saints who are born again, believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and washed away theier sins by the blood of the Lamb of God. I read that this pope John Paul II wanted to take a dip in the River Ganga to wash away his sins. Now, this man is being exalted to the sainthood....what a joke..

    May 1, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  2. kevbo201

    I am going to go out on a limb, and say, that there will never be born a man whom people view as being "good". And that is sad.

    May 1, 2011 at 2:16 am |
  3. Aristocles

    Beatification and Canonization are two different things! CNN = clueless news network. From this point until canonization, he shall be the Blessed John Paul II.

    May 1, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  4. tenman

    I've just never bought into the idea that there were different religious levels of humans, and some of us were demigods (saints) – one of my major problems with the catholic and other churches which deify (sainthood) humans. I am a monotheist, and catholics just have hundreds of gods to worship. Either you are a human/sinner, or you aren't. No such thing as 'saints'!

    May 1, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  5. Chuck

    Come on, CNN, this is lazy reporting. Beatification is not the same as sainthood.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • Thomas

      No one is beatified without the intention of moving on towards canonization. Do you really think the Church intends to stop at the third step to Sainthood?

      May 1, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  6. Robert Johnson

    How about another miracle now that you're dead John Paul II? How about performing the miracle of cleaning up the corruption in your own church?

    May 1, 2011 at 1:52 am |
  7. G

    CNN, get your facts straight before making a headline- Beatified, NOT a Saint yet!!! Huge diffference and huge mistake to make if u want anyone to take u seriously

    May 1, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  8. sd


    May 1, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  9. charlie

    who did this poll, 74% of Americans aren't even catholics, how can they think he deserves to beatified,good data CNN! Maybe you should take a step back and let someone rational read your articles before you publish them.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  10. Ernie

    > While ambivalence about his record on the abuse crisis may not call into question his personal holiness

    How could anyone configure such a preposterous phrase, John L. Allen? Of COURSE it calls his "personal holiness" into question - he was the boss, he knew, he shuffled and fudged and denied.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  11. John Lane

    There are already enough miracles – all the molesters whose cases were not reported, thanks to the intercession of JP's subordinates.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  12. Jebus

    Hey catholic church i just declared myself a saint! That was easy.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  13. brown

    Dumb humans!

    May 1, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  14. syrdnc

    John Paul will be Beatified, not Canonized tomorrow. Which means he is becoming a Blessed in the Church, not a Saint. Beatification is the final step before Canonization but this ceremony will not make JPII a Saint.

    May 1, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • Todd

      Well, he's already a schmuck.

      May 1, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  15. Nate Bobb

    There is only one hope for the world. Only one new king on Earth who walked with the God of Abraham. Only one man who is the last Theocratic King of the Orthodox Christian Church. Only one true redeemer. Do your homework and find new faith. Who is the true prince from the seed of David thru Solomon thru Menelik? Who is the true prince from the seed of Sheba- The Queen of Egypt? All religions, all brothers and sisters, all creation find peace in Ras Tafari. H.I.M. LIVES. Man of the Year 1932, exiled by the Italians in WWII, only to reclaim his place as King of Ethiopia and Highest of all In the oldest Christian Church known to man- The Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Hah! It's comical who the they pray to. That is why so few are truly saved. Ras Tafari is our answer TODAY- Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc.....!!!!!

    May 1, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • Todd

      Unless Raj Tiffin, (or whatever you call him) is just another name for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you are just full of it.

      All hail his great noodleness.


      May 1, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  16. LouAz

    Where can I get tickets for this beheading ? What Channel is it on ? Will we get to see the current poopie's new dress and hat ? He has a new outfit everyday ! Will the Donald be there ? Oh, this is just so important to those children in Darfur. Will they be able to see it ?

    May 1, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  17. Ronnie

    John Paul II deserves NOTHING ! Why do catholics think they deserve any attention at all ? Clean up your peds catholic(ks) then maybe people would give a f about this.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  18. trl

    ......he is complicit by lack of action against the perpetrators.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  19. Bill

    To me, he will forever be the patron saint of child molesters.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • detsea


      May 1, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Thomas

      Of closeted, ordained child molesters. He didn't do much to protect the average, run-of-the-mill child molester.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  20. p

    He is going to be beatified, not made a saint.

    May 1, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • boltwoodite

      OK, thought I was losing my mind...I haven't considered myself a Catholic in decades but thought I remembered that beatification ≠ saint!

      May 1, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • Thomas

      No one is beatified without the intention of proceeding to canonization. Do you really think the Church intends to stop at the third step to Sainthood?

      May 1, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • Maybe


      Here is a long list of those who made it to "Blessed" and no further, including Junipero Serra and Pope John XXIII:


      May 1, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • VegasRage

      Catholicism is the most contrived religion in the world. None of the positions and many of the beliefs are found nowhere within the bible, pope, bishops, rosaries, holy water, etc. It's all a load of BS.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • WittyUsername

      Vegas: My thoughts exactly.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • YGeerationn

      Hey Thomas, no matter how many times you say the same thing on this board, it does not change a fact. Beautification is NOT achieving Sainthood no matter what they intend to do after the fact. It's pretty black and white.

      May 1, 2011 at 2:31 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.