John Paul II, Second Father and Cover-upper

(Audio version of the post)

Hope you had a happy St. Patrick’s day on Friday. The late Pope John Paul II regarded Poles and Irish as spiritual cousins. That’s why he made a trip to Ireland during the first year of his papacy, 1979, along with a trip to Poland. (And he came to Mexico and the US that year also, as some of us remember.)

Recently a documentary aired in Poland. It was the work of Marcin Gutowski, who has spent years trying to understand how his countryman Karol Wojtyla dealt with the crime of sexual abuse of minors.


Gutowski has a book called Blindness (Bielmo), about what John Paul II knew and when. Also, Ekke Overbeek has just published Maxima Culpa, on the same topic (both books currently available only in Polish).

Gutowski’s documentary, which has caused a national uproar in Poland since its airing earlier this month, reviews the cases of three criminal priests with whom Wojtyla had dealings, while he was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, prior to his election as pope.

The documentary uses the Polish language, of course, which I don’t know. And you can’t watch it in full in the US right now anyway. (The internet is not licensed to show it here.) But I have done a fair amount of digging around to try to understand what exactly the documentary asserts.

It asserts that Karol Wojtyla did what he could to cover-up the criminal acts of sexually abusive priests.

Not only do many Poles not want to think this, but a lot of us now-older American Catholics do not want to think of Pope John Paul II as a sex-abuse cover-upper, either. When I was first starting out in life, JP II inspired me to enter the Church and become a priest. I read everything he ever wrote. Throughout my twenties (the 1990’s), I revered Pope John Paul II as the wisest and best man living.

The fact is, though, that we have reason to credit the portrait of Wojtyla that Gutowski and Overbeek have painted. They have given us: Cardinal Wojtyla, sex-abuse cover-upper archbishop. We already had the picture of the same man as: sex-abuse cover-upper pope. We had that picture clearly before us, if only we took the time to look.

John Paul II on the Mall
John Paul II in Washington, D.C., 1979

In the spring of 2011, sex-abuse survivor Peter Isely published an essay about his experiences with the late Polish pope.

Isely chronicled the hundreds, if not thousands, of personal appeals by sex-abuse survivors to JP II, all of which went unanswered.

On the centenary of JP II’s birth, I compiled a little bit of the evidence of the pope’s cover-up of the crimes of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.

Then the Vatican’s “McCarrick Report” came out in late 2020. It contains a decisive nugget of information about Pope John Paul II’s role in McCarrick’s career, a nugget of information that I have mediated on long and hard.

It was the year 2000…

The pope was considering who should become the new Archbishop of Washington. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York had denounced McCarrick to the pope, warning him in the strongest terms not to promote the then-archbishop of Newark to the nation’s capital.

McCarrick wrote to Rome, denying that he was a sexual predator. But he admitted that he had made seminarians sleep in his bed. McCarrick knew that he could not deny that particular fact, since too many churchmen knew it to be true. He risked being dismissed as a liar if he tried to deny it.

So McCarrick told the pope a story about the “family life” he shared with his seminarians. As if we were still living in the 1800’s, when non-married adults did sometimes sleep in the same bed for purely practical reasons. Like to keep warm, or because there weren’t enough beds.

Since no adults in the western world had shared beds for those reasons in many decades (except in emergencies), McCarrick’s explanation rang colossally hollow, to be sure. But, actually, that didn’t matter, when it came to the decision that JP II had to make.

The simple, undisputed fact–that the Archbishop made seminarians sleep in his bed–that was itself a clear firing offense.


From the point-of-view of any reasonable boss of a boss, if you learn that your subordinate forced his subordinates get into bed with him, and there’s no dispute about the fact, then the culprit is done. Fired. Out. In this case, with defrocking procedures to begin immediately.

Remember, we’re not talking about the year 1900. We’re talking about the year 2000. In the year 2000, there would have been no controversy about this in any well-run company. You force a subordinate to sleep in the same bed as you, you’re fired.

But JP II did not fire McCarrick. He made McCarrick the Archbishop of Washington and a Cardinal. I was there.

McC went on to participate in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI. He went on to preach a beatification Mass. He stood right behind Pope Francis when the pope came to Washington to do a canonization. He had a high school named after him.

McCarrick went on to do many, many other things that a cruel villain like himself never should have been doing in Christ’s Church. Including ordaining me a priest on May 24, 2003.

JP II could have, and should have–by any reasonable estimation–stopped it all from happening. He did not.

I think the pope fuzzily imagined in his mind some kind of rug that all this hard-hearted nonsense would somehow fit under. Because, by then, he had been imagining the existence of a such a rug for decades.

JP II’s apologists refer to this decision about McCarrick, made in AD 2000, as an “administrative error.” Administrative error? If the pope had accidentally sold Michelangelo’s Pieta to Bono for 15,000 euros, that would have been an administrative error. This was something else altogether.

This leaves us, then, with plenty of reason to believe Gutowski and Overbeek, plenty of reason to credit the extensive evidence they present. That said, their portrait of the cover-upper Archbishop of Krakow has been criticized in two ways:

1. The Polish bishops have argued that JP II’s pontificate provides evidence of his “decisive measures against cases of sexual abuse in the Church.”

The bishops point to a number of examples, especially JP II’s decision, in 2001, to reserve to the Holy See all canonical trials of criminal sex-abuser clergymen. Starting in 2001, Rome began to handle the ecclesiastical punishment of this particular crime. This change, the Polish bishops write, “proved to be a turning point in the Church’s fight against sexual crimes within its own ranks.”

In point of fact, it has proved to be a turning point in the Church’s cover-up of sexual crimes within its own ranks. This centralization of sex-abuse cases has had this result: A huge mountain of information about these crimes now resides permanently behind the Vatican walls, totally inaccessible to any secular law-enforcement agency on earth. Many of those crimes have become actionable in secular courts of law. But the affected parties do not have access to the documented information held by the Vatican.

Which means this 2001 change has now become the most massive Church cover-up yet. Initiated by Pope John Paul II.

2. A more-trenchant criticism of Gutowski’s and Overbeek’s portrait of Wojtyla comes from scholars of Polish history who question the reliability of some of the documents that the journalists relied on to form their narrative. These scholars raise legitimate questions. Certainly the memos of Communist secret policemen, their spies, and counter-spies within the Church–none of these can be taken at face value.

This criticism does not in the end, though, amount to very much. For one thing, both Gutowski and Overbeek sought access to diocesan archives, and Church officials denied their requests. More importantly, however: The journalists’ narrative does not rely decisively on Communist-archive material. Both Gutowksi and Overbeek personally interviewed sex-abuse survivors who had been victimized when Wojtyla was Archbishop. Gutowski interviewed a survivor who personally told Wojtyla, at the time, about the abuse. The Archbishop said: Keep it quiet.

Boston Globe 2002Poland is in an uproar right now not because Gutowski and Overbeek have produced the first evidence that Wojtyla covered-up crimes. Poland is in an uproar because these journalists have now produced the decisive evidence. We could say the same about the Catholic Church in the USA in 2002: That year, the Boston Globe did not produce the first evidence that the bishops of our country had operated as a mafia of criminal cover-uppers. The Globe produced the decisive evidence of that fact.


In 2009, they held a series of meetings in the Vatican that resulted in a declaration that Karol Wojtyla had lived a life of “heroic virtue.” The first step towards sainthood.

Very little information about those meetings is available to the public. The official documentation provided on the website of the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints describes as heroic JP II’s forgiveness of his unsuccessful assassin and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Did anyone involved in those meetings consider the point-of-view of the victims of crimes that Wojtyla had almost certainly covered up during his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow? Did anyone think about the families of those victims?

By 2009, the Church had supposedly “learned its lesson” about covering-up sex abuse. In an interview recorded earlier this month, Pope Francis claimed that ‘everything changed’ in the Church after 2002, after the ‘Boston scandal.’ (You can watch the interview below.)

Did the Cardinals assembled in 2009, then, discuss the point-of-view of Polish sex-abuse survivors, and their families? Did Benedict XVI consider it, before he signed the decree, declaring to the world that the cover-upper archbishop and pope lived a life of “heroic virtue?”

We have no way of knowing the answer to these questions.

But we do know, because a credible Vatican insider has revealed it, that someone said to Pope Francis, shortly before he canonized JP II in 2014: “Holy Father, there certainly must be sex-abuse survivors, and their families, still living in Poland–people who will remember Wojtyla telling them to keep quiet about the crimes committed against them. And someday, that fact will come out. Someday soon. Maybe you shouldn’t go through with this canonization?”

We know that this conversation took place. Pope Francis canonized JP II anyway.

In the interview above, Pope Francis explains it all away with this argument:

We cannot judge people in history by our own standards. We have to apply the standards they followed at the time. For the Church, everything changed in 2002, because of the Boston scandal. Before then, it was all cover-up. In families now, in neighborhoods, it’s still all cover-up. You have to judge people according to the standards of their time and place.

I, for one, find this argument utterly unconvincing. After all, it is contradicted by practically every fact of the actual case. The law of the land in Poland held, at the time, that sexually abusing a minor constituted a crime. Wojtyla knowingly covered up crimes. He told people to keep quiet who themselves recognized at the time that crimes had been committed against them, or against their children.

Now, was this all part of a political game Wojtyla had to play, to try to outwit  the Communists? If that idea can explain away the cover-ups, then why didn’t Wojtyla do anything about those very crimes, and those very victims, when he could have? Namely, when he became the Bishop of Rome, the pope, in 1978?

No, we can find a better explanation in Peter Isely’s essay:

John Paul II’s advocacy for human rights around the world clearly and decisively ended at the front door of the church.

The Polish bishops claim that:

The root cause of the communications media assault on John Paul II is the attitude of the media toward his teaching which does not correspond to contemporary ideologies promoting hedonism, relativism, and moral nihilism.

The irony here is enormous.

First, how about this question: Who is the moral nihilist? The victim who denounces a crime, or the one who tries to shame the victim into silence?

Here’s another question: Who exactly has compromised the authority of the Church here? Gutowski and Overbeek? A historical debate about what exactly happened in the Krakow chancery in the late 1960’s and early 70’s does not touch on the question of whether the then-Archbishop is in purgatory or in heaven.

The choir of Yes men who went along with a rushed canonization: they are the ones who have compromised the authority of the Church. Not the survivors who have spoken. The papal cult-of-personality cultivators: they have compromised the authority of the Church. Not the survivors who have spoken.

john paul superstar time magazine

I still admire the man I looked up to, in many ways. He gave us many genuinely profound reflections on how to live as a Christian in our times. He was certainly a master showman and an expert in making impressive gestures. Who can really doubt that he loved God and His Christ, and that he prayed hard his whole life?

But he was also a careerist bureaucrat, an equivocator, a stubborn bastard, and an obtuse narcissist.

I pray for my flawed, dead blood father, that he may get to heaven sooner rather than later. I pray likewise for Karol Wojtyla, a kind-of second father for this bookish goofball who became a priest. May the pope of my youth rest in peace. May the good Lord be merciful to him.

But I know this much: The victims of the crimes Wojtyla helped to cover up: They deserve to get to heaven before he does. And I figure that, from where Wojtyla sits now, he knows that, too.