Perspective amid polemic over John Paul II and sex abuse

Crux [Denver CO]

March 19, 2023

By John L. Allen Jr.

Shakespeare famously wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” In Poland today, however, a broad swath of the country is insisting that it must not be so with regard to St. John Paul II, as new claims of failures by the late pope on clerical sexual abuse compete with vigorous defenses of his legacy.

Fueling the showdown are a recent documentary from a Polish television network and a new book by a Dutch journalist, both of which allege that during the period when the future pope served as the Archbishop of Krakow, there were  a handful of cases in which then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla knew of allegations of abuse against a priest and either reassigned him or otherwise tried to keep it quiet.

In a report that aired March 6, the Polish broadcaster TVN named three priests it claimed the future pope either assigned to new parishes or to a monastery after learning of allegations of sexual abuse. In one case, the report alleged, Wojtyla wrote a letter of recommendation for a priest to Cardinal Franz Köning of Vienna, Austria, without mentioning that the priest, named Boleslaw Sadus, had been accused of the abuse of minor boys.

Two of the three priests, according to the TVN report, eventually served prison terms for abuse. The conclusion of the report was that Wojtyla was aware of the abuse allegations and sought to conceal them.

The new book, titled Maxima Culpa: John Paul II Knew, by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, makes similar charges. In one instance, Overbeek claims a priest who had forced 10-year-old girls to have oral sex admitted his behavior to Wojtyla in 1970, but that Wojtyla kept the priest in ministry even after he’d been jailed.

“We are used to this empathetic, warm, sympathetic person” when people think of John Paul II, Overbeek told the AFP. “But here we see a completely different face of the same person… the apparatchik of the institution of the church.”

Critics have made much of the fact that both the TVN report and Overbeek’s book rely on files from Poland’s Communist-era secret police, which wanted to discredit the Catholic Church and often manufactured charges against priests. The network and Overbeek have responded that they also interviewed abuse survivors and consulted other witnesses, and that in any event they couldn’t rely on ecclesiastical archives because Polish church officials have refused to make them available.

The brouhaha over John Paul II has become a political football, with the country’s governing Law and Justice party, which has close ties to the Catholic Church, making defense of the late pope a campaign issue ahead of elections this fall. Party leaders recently pushed through a resolution in the national parliament condemning what it called “the shameful campaign conducted by the media … against the Great Pope St. John Paul II, the greatest Pole in history.”

Political fireworks aside, the new reports about John Paul II will have to be examined by careful historians and researchers on a case-by-case basis, and it may take some time to establish the  precise degree of responsibility that belongs to the future pope.

In the meantime, three points probably are worth recalling.

First, Karol Wojtyla served as the Archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978, a period when reports from other countries, such as the U.S., Australia, Germany and France, suggest coincided with a statistical peak in incidents of clerical sexual abuse. There’s no a priori reason to believe Poland should be different, meaning it would be a striking anomaly if there were no such cases during Wojtyla’s 14-year tenure, especially given the size and reach of the Krakow archdiocese.

During that span of time, sexual misconduct by priests tended to be understood by way of analogy with alcoholism – offending priests usually were sent quietly for treatment and then reassigned, with no disclosure about their past. Once again, there’s no reason to assume that Wojtyla’s understanding or handling of these cases would have been markedly different from other diocesan bishops of his generation.

That seemed to be the gist of what Pope Francis said in a recent interview with the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, when asked about the charges against John Paul II.

“Back then everything was covered up,” Francis said, insisting that John Paul’s choices must be “interpreted with the hermeneutics of the respective time.”

Second, as a matter of the theology of sainthood, canonizing a pope is not tantamount to declaring that his entire ecclesiastical career was free of error.

I recall clearly, for example, that when Pope Pius IX was beatified in 2000, Vatican spokespersons took pains to stress that the act didn’t mean he never made a mistake as pope, including his 1849 decision to force the Jews of Rome back into their ghetto. Instead, the spokespersons said, the beatification meant that despite whatever limitations or human failures marked his papacy, there was nevertheless a genuine holiness of life about Pius IX that’s worthy of emulation.

If that’s true of a papacy, a fortiori it also applies to decisions made as a bishop prior to becoming pope.

Third, as a matter of basic Christian charity, no one’s legacy should ever be reduced entirely to their worst days.

Even if we assume that John Paul II made tragic mistakes in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, both as the Archbishop of Krakow and even as pope, none of that would wipe away the positive basis for his 2014 canonization. John Paul II would still be the pope who inspired the Solidarity movement and helped bring down Communism, he’d still be the pastor who encouraged an entire generation to “Be not afraid!”, and he’d still be a priest of deep faith who preached divine mercy and even forgave the man who tried to kill him.

A complicated papal legacy, in other words, isn’t automatically the same thing as a tarnished halo. The challenge is to do justice both to the virtues and the vices of someone’s legacy — a balancing act which is never easy, especially when politics, media visibility and profits are all in the mix.