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Miracle under scrutiny in John Paul beatification

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The Vatican this week marks the fifth anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death amid some doubts that the miracle needed for his saint-making cause will stand up to scrutiny and questions about his record combatting pedophile priests.

The inexplicable cure of a young French nun from Parkinson's disease had initially seemed like the perfect case for a miracle as the Vatican fast-tracked John Paul's beatification. The nun, who suffered from the same disease that ravaged John Paul for years, had prayed to him for relief and one morning two months after John Paul died, woke up completely, inexplicably cured.

But from the beginning, Simon-Pierre's mysterious cure seemed difficult for the Vatican to certify as a miracle. According to the Vatican's own rules, the medically inexplicable cure must be instantaneous, complete, and lasting.

While the nun's cure was by all indications instantaneous and complete, some would argue the world will have to wait her entire lifetime to determine whether it was lasting, in case the symptoms return.

New questions were raised in recent weeks, after a Polish newspaper reported that doubts had been cast about whether Simon-Pierre had Parkinson's to begin with. The Rzeczpospolita daily, one of Poland's most respected and widely read newspapers, suggested that Simon-Pierre instead may have suffered from another neurological disease which has smilier symptoms as Parkinson's but which can be cured.

Without citing sources, it said the Vatican had called in new experts to examine the case.

Responding to the report, the emeritus head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, suggested that what may have happened was that a doctor, who is asked in a preliminary phase by the Congregation to advise whether it's worth sending the case onto the fuller Vatican-appointed medical board, may have expressed some doubts.

"It could be that one of the two medical consultants perhaps had some doubts," he told reporters last week. "And this, unfortunately, leaked out. But we cannot confuse one thing with another.

"So it's wrong to say the doctors haven't approved the miracle," he said. "It's absurd because the doctors of the medical consultation board haven't pronounced themselves."

That said, he acknowledged that the doubts would require further investigation. In such cases, he said, the Congregation would ask more doctors to come in and offer an opinion.

The postulator who is spearheading John Paul's cause, Monsignor Slawomir Oder, has declined to comment on the reports, citing the Vatican rule for secrecy in the handling of the case.

Beatification is the first step toward possible sainthood. The Vatican must confirm one miracle has occurred due to the intercession of John Paul before he can be beatified. A second miracle is needed for him to be declared a saint.

Saraiva Martins was also asked how the Vatican could be certain that the cure is lasting, when a disease like Parkinson's is something that most commonly occurs late in life. For a woman who suffered from it in her 40s, how could the Vatican be certain she won't get it again?

The cardinal acknowledged the difficulty of the case, and hinted that waiting might be necessary. "It depends on the nature of the illness," he said. "For some illnesses, it's clear: it's totally cured. Some others return. That's why we need to wait."

Saraiva Martins stressed that he was speaking only in his capacity as someone knowledgeable with the Congregations' procedures and not as someone currently involved in the case.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005, death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" that erupted in St. Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.

Benedict waived the customary five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into John Paul's life and virtues to begin immediately. In December 2009, Benedict signed a decree attesting to his "heroic virtues."

And on Monday, Benedict will celebrate Mass at the Vatican marking the fifth anniversary of John Paul's death. The Vatican moved the service to Monday so the Mass wouldn't conflict with Good Friday.

But recently, new questions have been raised about John Paul's record in combatting pedophile priests. John Paul presided over the church when the sex abuse scandal exploded in the United States in 2002 and the Vatican was swamped with complaints and lawsuits under his leadership. Yet during most of his 26-year papacy, individual dioceses and not the Vatican took sole responsibility for investigating misbehavior.

But John Paul himself had long championed the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the conservative order that fell into scandal after it revealed that its founder had fathered a child and had molested seminarians.

The Vatican began investigating allegations against the Rev. Marcial Maciel of Mexico in the 1950s, but it wasn't until 2006, a year into Benedict's pontificate, that the Vatican instructed Maciel to lead a "reserved life of prayer and penance" in response to the abuse allegations — effectively removing him from power.

Subsequently, Benedict ordered a full-on investigation of the order since its entire existence was so closely intertwined with that of its discredited founder.

Saraiva Martins said historians who studied the pope's life as part of the sainthood process didn't find anything problematic in John Paul's handling of abuse scandals.

"According to them there was nothing that was a true obstacle to his cause of beatification," he said.

The OK from historians led to Benedict's decree last December that John Paul had led a virtuous life. As a result, all that's needed for him to be beatified is for the miracle to be confirmed.

But with such a high-profile case as John Paul's, the miracle is going to be heavily scrutinized — as will Simon-Pierre for the rest of her life. Amid reports earlier this month that the nun had again fallen ill, the Aix-en-Provence archdiocese issued a statement March 10 attesting to her health.

"I categorically deny this rumor," Rev. Luc Marie Lalanne, archdiocese chancellor said. "Little Sister Marie Simon-Pierre remains to this day in perfect health."

Saraiva Martins said the case of Simon-Pierre is still very much in play. But he added that there are many other reports of inexplicable cures, or "graces" as he termed them, that have reached the Vatican in the five years since the pope died and any one of them could be used if need be.

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