The Vatican has fast-tracked Pope John Paul II for sainthood, even though a significant portion of the clerical sex abuse scandal happened on his watch. This is concerning, but not surprising, given the Church’s history of protecting priests instead of children and patting itself on the back while willfully failing to take meaningful action regarding abusive priests or abuse survivors.
According to an Associated Press (AP) story, Pope Francis signed a decree on Friday declaring John Paul for sainthood, culminating a “fast-track” process that informally began at John Paul’s 2005 funeral , where thousands at St. Peter’s Square chanted “Santo subito” – Sainthood now! John Paul’s sainthood was initially fast-tracked by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, when he “dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after John Paul’s death,” according to the AP story. The canonization ceremony may take place by the end of 2013 and reports speculate that the ceremony could occur as soon as December 8.
Fast-tracking. Yes, the Vatican has the power to move things along quickly.
Or very slowly – or not at all – as documents released last week by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee starkly show. According to those documents, the Vatican delayed the requested laicization of admitted Archdiocese sexual offender priests for several years while children continued to be abused and at risk. But when asked by then Archbishop of Milwaukee Timothy Dolan to “proceed with alienation of property” owned by the Archdiocese – approximately $57 million – for transfer to a cemetery trust and offer “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability,” the Vatican acted and approved the transfer in a little more than one month. This maneuver was done as the Archdiocese prepared to file for bankruptcy. Clerical sex abuse survivors and their attorneys have accused Dolan of bankruptcy fraud and moving money to protect it from abuse survivors.
Those are just some of the sad details reflected by the released documents. John Paul was not the pope in 2007, when the $57 million transfer was requested and approved. That occurred under Pope Benedict’s watch. But history shows that John Paul’s legacy clearly includes the burgeoning clerical sex abuse scandal and the Church’s failure to adequately deal with it. In its report of Pope Francis’ sainthood decision on Friday, CNN noted that “Despite being so beloved, John Paul didn’t live up to expectations at a crucial moment in the church’s history, as revelations of sexual abuse scandals involving thousands [of] Catholic priests erupted across the world in the early 2000s, critics say.” John Paul was pope from 1978-2005.
The matter of Marcial Maciel Degollado – a Catholic priest alleged to have sexually abused dozens of children in many countries and multiple decades – is a particularly tragic and disturbing example of Pope John Paul’s failure in this regard. In 1997, several men came forward to accuse Maciel of sexually abusing them while they were boys and young men training to become priests. The men alleged that Maciel sexually abused them in multiple countries, including Italy and Spain, during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. One of the men, Juan J. Vaca, wrote a letter regarding Maciel’s sexual abuse in which Vaca accused Maciel of sexually abusing some 20 of Maciel’s seminarians. In 1978, Vaca gave the letter to Bishop John R. McGann, who forwarded the letter, along with a corroborating letter from another alleged victim and other documents, to the Vatican. The Vatican acknowledged receiving the materials, but Vaca never received an additional response. In 1989, Vaca decided to leave the priesthood, and wrote to Pope John Paul II requesting formal dispensation from his priestly vows. Vaca’s 1989 submission to John Paul included discussion of years of his and others’ sexual abuse by Maciel, with details dating back to 1949. Vaca’s request to leave the priesthood was granted by the Vatican, but Pope John Paul II ignored Vaca’s allegations against Maciel.
Multiple allegations eventually surfaced accusing Maciel of sexually abusing, in the 1980s and 1990s – when John Paul was pope – other children, including a boy Maciel fathered. Instead of acting on the 1978, 1989 and 1997 allegations, seeking prosecution of Maciel and potentially stopping Maciel from harming other children, Pope John Paul II honored Maciel. In 1994, John Paul celebrated Maciel’s 50th anniversary as a priest, praising Maciel as “an efficacious guide to youth,” in a letter that appeared in major newspapers in Mexico City. John Paul would praise Maciel for loyalty to the papacy, and Maciel accompanied John Paul on two of his trips to North America.
The Maciel tragedy illustrates why the fast-tracked canonization of John Paul is unseemly, at best. As noted in a recent AP story, “John Paul has been on the fast track for possible sainthood ever since his 2005 death, but there remains some concern that the process has been too quick. Some of the Holy See’s deep-seated problems – clerical sex abuse, dysfunctional governance and more recently the financial scandals at the Vatican bank – essentially date from shortcomings of his pontificate.”
Pope Francis’ approach to the clerical sex abuse scandal is being observed closely by abuse survivors and advocates across the world; they have watched with dismay and frustration as the Vatican has ignored and downplayed their suffering for decades. John Paul was beloved worldwide and was arguably a significant 20th Century figure. But his hands are not clean and sainthood – especially fast-tracked – seems ill-suited and insulting to clerical sexual abuse survivors. In this case, the Vatican needs to move very slowly – or not at all.
Jeff Anderson is an attorney and advocate working with survivors of clergy sexual abuse at Jeff Anderson & Associates.