On Monday, we marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II. Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the late pope’s tomb. The Holy Father said:
John Paul went to find the people. Throughout the whole world, he went to visit his people, searching for his people, making himself close… A priest who is not close to his people is not a pastor. He’s a hierarch, an administrator, maybe even a good one, but he’s not a pastor.
Saint John Paul II gave us an example of this closeness, to the great and the small, to the close and the far away. He always drew them near.
Twenty years ago, meeting John Paul II gave this particular seminarian great hope. I had read every word he ever wrote. I regarded him as the wisest man on earth. I wanted to become a priest like him.
But some other people could not see him this way. And for good reason.
On the occasion of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, Mr. Peter Isely wrote an essay. He got to the heart of a problem that has since come to preoccupy me a great deal.
We victims of priest abuse didn’t need a papal saint. We needed a Citizen-Saint, who embodied catholic citizenship as much as catholic sanctity, and who was as adept and insistent at forming such citizens among his seminarians, priests, and especially his bishops.
It is as a fellow citizen, humbly assuming this most ordinary role, where John Paul’s sanctity really fails. This failure is all the more dramatic with the late pope because he advocated so passionately as a “citizen of the world” for human rights around the world.
That advocacy clearly and decisively ended at the front door of the church.
Fellow citizens report child molesting clerics to the police. Fellow citizens eject sex offenders from professional employment with children and families.
The pope, who had the power to do both of these urgent citizen acts, never did the first, and made the second virtually impossible.
Citizenship, like holiness, requires sacrifice, defending if necessary, and dismantling if required, practices and traditions that attack the equality of rights regardless of one’s status (such as the basic human rights, say, of children inside the church). Concerning criminal priests, John Paul was never prepared, or saw no need for, the kind of sacrifice citizenship requires.
Isely did not muse idly here. He wrote from personal experience:
In 1991, a group of some 30 survivors of childhood sexual molestation by priests and I wrote to Pope John Paul II in painstaking and excruciating detail of our harrowing experiences of being raped and sexually assaulted as youngsters while attending a boarding school for boys operated by the Capuchin Franciscan religious order in rural Wisconsin.
We delivered our letter, along with newspaper clippings, supporting legal documents, and videotaped depositions to the papal nuncio in Washington.
What we were hoping for from Pope John Paul II was justice.
What we received instead was a certified letter from the nuncio curtly informing us that our letters and documents had been acknowledged. We never heard anything more.
You may remember, dear reader, how we considered the Hans Card. Groër case. Between 1995 and 1998, evidence piled up against the Cardinal Archbishop.
The Vatican at first refused to act, then tried to lower Groër’s profile. Pope John Paul II visited Austria, apparently intending to smooth everything over by ignoring the problem. The visit just made the problem worse. The results of a Vatican “investigation” never saw the light of day.
Finally, the bishops of the country–over Vatican objections–publicly declared themselves “morally certain” that Groër had, in fact, sexually abused minors. Which was the closest to a guilty verdict that Groër ever came.
You also may remember, dear reader, how we considered Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s book Vows of Silence, when we reviewed James’ Grein’s accusation against the late Joseph Card. Bernardin.
In the 1990’s, nine victims of the founder of the Legion of Christ found the clarity and courage to speak about the crimes they had suffered at the hands of the man they had trusted with their young lives.
On multiple occasions, different Church authorities in Mexico and the U.S. reviewed and endorsed the testimony, and sent it to the Vatican. Nothing happened.
Berry and Renner wrote, in 2004:
The Vatican is under no obligation to assist investigative journalists. In the seven years since we first contacted the office of the papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, for comment on accusations by nine ex-Legion members that Maciel had abused them, the Vatican refused comment.
No Vatican official ever told us Maciel was innocent. There was simply no answer to the accusations in media reports.
The charges that Vaca and others filed against Maciel in a Vatican court of canon law in 1998 were shelved: no decision. Instead, Pope John Paul in 2001 praised Maciel at a sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Legion’s founding.
That symbolic acquittal from a pope who championed human rights under dictatorships is a numbing message on the state of justice in the church.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. I remember it like yesterday. I felt I had lost a father.
Maciel died in 2008, never having faced a trial. In 2010, the Vatican finally acknowledged:
The very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies, in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning.
This life was unknown to the great majority of the Legionaries, above all because of the system of relationships constructed by Father Maciel, who was able skillfully to create alibis for himself, to obtain trust, confidence and silence from those around him, and to reinforce his personal role as a charismatic founder.
Not infrequently a deplorable discrediting and distancing of those who entertained doubts as to the probity of his conduct, as well as a misguided concern to avoid damaging the good that the Legion was accomplishing, created around him a defense mechanism that for a long time rendered him unassailable, making it very difficult, as a result, to know the truth about his life.
The sincere zeal of the majority of Legionaries led many people to believe that the increasingly insistent and widespread accusations could not be other than calumnies.
Therefore the discovery and the knowledge of the truth concerning the founder gave rise among the members of the Legion to surprise, dismay, and profound grief.
Do those of us who loved and admired Pope St. John Paul II have to undergo some form of the same grief?
Not that JPII himself abused anyone. But that, as a pastor, he had a willful blind spot? A blind spot the size of Texas, when it came to sexual abuse by the clergy?
Peter Isely put it like this:
It is likely John Paul, during his long tenure as pope, received hundreds, if not thousands of letters denouncing abusers in the clergy. Not one survivor, in writing or in person, was ever known to have received a direct reply from him.
The legacy of John Paul II has been, literally, sanctified by Popes Benedict and Francis as official church history. Part of that legacy, whose vast dimensions are still being uncovered, includes thousands of unprosecuted child molesting clerics.