As Pope John Paul II is made a saint, what did he know about the sexual-abuse that festered under his watch?

The reluctance to tackle the Church’s scandals, including the crimes committed by the drug-addicted fraudster Marcial Maciel, raise many difficult questions for a much-praised papacy

Vatican City

Pope John Paul II is rightly credited with having helped to bring down communism, inspiring a new generation of Catholics with a globetrotting papacy and explaining church teaching on a range of hot-button issues as Christianity entered its third millennium.

But the sexual-abuse scandal that festered under his watch remains a stain on his legacy.

John Paul and his top advisers failed to grasp the severity of the problem until very late in his 26-year papacy, even though US bishops had been petitioning the Holy See since the late 1980s for a faster way to defrock paedophile priests.

The experience of John Paul in Poland under Communist and Nazi rule, where innocent priests were often discredited by trumped-up accusations, is believed to have influenced his general defensiveness of the clergy. The exodus of clergy after the turbulent 1960s similarly made him want to hold on to the priests he still had.

Pope Francis has inherited John Paul’s most notorious failure on the sex-abuse front – the Legion of Christ order, which John Paul and his top advisers held up as a model. Francis, who will canonise John Paul on Sunday, must decide whether to sign off on the Vatican’s three-year reform project, imposed after the Legion admitted that its late founder sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children.

Yet the Legion’s 2009 admission about Father Marcial Maciel’s double life was not news to the Vatican.

Documents from the archives of the Vatican’s then-sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes show how a succession of papacies – including that of John XXIII, also to be canonised on Sunday – simply turned a blind eye to credible reports that Maciel was a con artist, drug addict, paedophile and religious fraud.

By 1948, seven years after Maciel had founded the order, the Holy See had documents from Vatican-appointed envoys and bishops in Mexico and Spain questioning  the legitimacy of Maciel’s ordination (by his uncle, after Maciel was expelled from a series of seminaries), noting the questionable legal foundation of his order and flagging his “totalitarian” behaviour and spiritual violations of young seminarians.

The documents show the Holy See was well aware of Maciel’s drug abuse, sexual abuse and financial improprieties as early as 1956, when it ordered an investigation and suspended him for two years to kick a morphine habit.

Yet for decades, Rome looked the other way, thanks to Maciel’s ability to keep his own priests quiet, his foresight to place trusted Legion priests in key Vatican offices, and his careful cultivation of Vatican cardinals, Mexican bishops and wealthy, powerful lay Catholics. Vatican officials were impressed instead by the orthodoxy of his priests and Maciel’s ability to attract new vocations and donations.

John Paul, who in 1994 praised Maciel as an “efficacious guide to youth”, wasn’t alone in being duped. His top advisers were some of Maciel’s fiercest supporters, convinced that the accusations were the typical “calumnies” hurled at the greatest of saints. They were swayed by testimonies from bishops and others of his greatness, which also feature in the Vatican archives leaked and put online in 2012 by some of his Mexican victims.

Two years after the Vatican sentenced Maciel to a lifetime of penance and prayer for sexual abuse, senior Cardinal Angelo Sodano in 2008 was still praising the spirit of Maciel and his “humility” in stepping aside after the Vatican finally confronted him.

John Paul’s prefect of the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, Cardinal Franc Rode, told Legion priests that year that he had absolved Maciel and praised the “fruits” that Maciel’s group had given the church.

“The fruit is good. The fruit is extraordinarily good. It is excellent,” Cardinal Rode said, according to his November 2008 speech made public online by Mexico’s Zocalo newspaper. “Can we say the tree is bad then? Purely from a logical standpoint, I would say no. I absolve Father Maciel. I do not judge him.”

Maciel’s fraud raises uncomfortable questions for today’s Vatican about how so many people could have been duped for so long. It also brings into question how the Church’s structure, values and priorities enabled a cult-like order to grow from within and how far accountability for all the harm done should go.

Finally, it begs the question of whether the order has really been purged of the abuses that allowed generations of priests to subject themselves to blind obedience to a false prophet.

In his 2013 book I Lived with a Saint, John Paul’s longtime Polish aide Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz said his Pope knew “nothing, absolutely nothing” about Maciel’s misdeeds.

“He was still the founder of a great religious order and that’s it. No one had told him anything, not even about the rumours going around,” wrote Cardinal Dziwisz, the leading force behind John Paul’s remarkably fast canonisation.

He blamed the Vatican’s “extremely bureaucratic structure” for preventing such information from reaching John Paul and denied that his Pope was slow to react.

Juan Vaca begs to differ.

Vaca was the Legion’s superior in the US from 1971 to 1976, when he joined the diocese of Rockville Centre, New York. In 1979, a year after John Paul was elected, Vaca’s bishop sent the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes a bombshell set of documents in which Vaca and another ex-Legion priest detailed the sexual abuse they and 19 other priests and seminarians had endured at Maciel’s hands.

He later was one of half a dozen former Legionaries who brought a canonical case against Maciel in 1998. It took eight years – and the death of John Paul – for Pope Benedict XVI to sanction Maciel.

“I feel once more outraged, furious with feelings of deception and rebellion at the circus process to make ‘saint’ a Pope who did nothing to preserve the Catholic Church and society from the horrendous crisis inflicted upon them by the Catholic clergy sexual abuse,” Vaca said.

Father Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University, said it is in the Church’s interest to investigate fully how the Legion scandal unfolded – including in those “corners of the Vatican” where Maciel’s supporters still wield influence – since John Paul “would never have knowingly allowed sexual abuse to fester”.

“He who stared down dictators would never have shirked the responsibility to bring the perpetrators of moral or sexual abuse to justice,” Father Gahl said. “History will demand such clarity and the time for it is now.”


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