Still saintly? Vatican’s new report on McCarrick may complicate the legacy of Pope John Paul II

By Michelle Boorstein And Sarah Pulliam Bailey
November 11, 2020

A new Vatican report’s revelations that Pope John Paul II disregarded reports about ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct had Catholics on Wednesday debating the legacy of one of the modern church’s towering figures. The report triggered questions about whether John Paul was rushed through the saint-making process, and whether the author of contemporary Catholic teaching on human sexuality didn’t understand the complex nature of the topic.

The 450-page report released Tuesday is an unprecedented effort by the church at full transparency, a rare window on internal Vatican decision-making that showed that not only John Paul but also popes Benedict and Francis knew McCarrick had faced multiple accusations. Each pontiff was aware of different aspects of the accusations against McCarrick, but the initial years of the case came under John Paul’s 27-year reign.

John Paul, who died in 2005 and was made a saint in 2014, elevated McCarrick to archbishop of Washington and summarily to cardinal despite the allegations. Under Benedict, McCarrick was asked to step down as archbishop of Washington when he reached the standard retirement age of 75 and told to keep a lower profile. Francis assumed his predecessors had already vetted the allegations against McCarrick, but took action once a credible accusation surfaced involving a minor. McCarrick was laicized in 2019.

Reactions to the revelations about John Paul have been emotional and divided. Some saw a man perhaps naively believing a scheming friend. The report’s authors raised the possibility that John Paul’s judgment was heavily colored by his experience in the Eastern Bloc, where negative propaganda about priests was used to weaken religious organizations. Others felt his decisions were potentially disqualifying for the high moral honor of sainthood.

“Saints are holy, not perfect. There’s no chance his canonization would be reversed,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, head of a center on U.S. Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, who has written extensively about saints. She added that if the report had come out before his canonization was complete, it would have mattered. “We canonize people for [Catholics], not for the person themselves. But what we know about sex abuse, this is not the kind of person — a person who failed on this level — he’s not to be imitated.”

Others felt the report made the case against John Paul’s canonization.

“It’s almost a bill of particulars against his sainthood,” said Jason Berry, an investigative journalist who wrote a book in 2004 about John Paul’s failure to address the sexual abuse scandal of Marcial Maciel, a Mexican church leader who abused youth and adults.

“He was unwilling to confront the phenomenon of priests involved in sex crimes. I don’t think he thought of it as criminal. He thought of it as a sin, a failing of celibacy,” said Berry.

The report showed that John Paul was among many Catholic clerics in the United States and Rome who had heard different pieces of the McCarrick sexual scandal that critics believe should have triggered further investigation. Instead, time after time, church officials, including John Paul, were often reluctant to probe deeper.

The report showed there were a range of allegations swirling around McCarrick starting in the 1980s, but they primarily remained in the United States, with letters sent to various bishops and priests. By 1999, New York Cardinal John O’Connor wrote a lengthy letter to the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, describing “grave fears” about what might happen if McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, were to receive a promotion. By the time McCarrick was appointed to lead the D.C. archdiocese, John Paul’s assistants had told him that McCarrick would share a bed with seminarians, that anonymous letters accused him of pedophilia with young relatives and that a priest accused him of “attempting to engage in sexual activity,” the report said. The priest was later diagnosed with psychological trauma.

To some readers, those allegations, while serious, didn’t add up to a “smoking gun” against McCarrick, who swore on his office to John Paul that the reports were untrue and that he’d never abused or hurt another person. John Paul was guilty only of being too trusting of a man who fooled and charmed Catholics around the globe.

“John Paul II was the victim of a deception: a man in whom he had reposed trust, Theodore McCarrick, lied to him about his true character. Saints are human beings, and saints, in their humanity, can be deceived. But let the focus of wickedness in this tawdry affair be identified accurately as Theodore McCarrick, not John Paul II,” George Weigel, one of the pope’s biographers, wrote Tuesday in First Things.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Weigel said there is “no doubt” that John Paul should have been canonized.

“I think Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker, was terribly wrong about Fidel Castro’s Cuba (and a host of other things political), but I don’t consider those misjudgments insuperable obstacles to her beatification and canonization. The Church recognizes saints for their heroic virtue, not because they got every judgment call right,” he wrote in an email.

Regardless of what John Paul believed about McCarrick, the late pope was certainly offered a picture of a man “who had a sexual problem,” said Cummings. And he didn’t seem to know what to do with that.

“I think it was willful ignorance of all kinds of sexual behavior. John Paul, for all his ‘Theology of the Body,’ and idealization of sex between married heterosexual couples — he had no categories to process McCarrick’s depravity,” she said. The “Theology of the Body” was a series of dozens of lectures John Paul gave about human sexuality that form a core of Catholic teaching today about sex.

“John Paul does not come across at all good in this report. His legacy will be absolutely affected, as will the legacy of everyone mentioned in it,” she said. “There were no heroes.”

Cummings saw in the report two men bonded by friendship and what she called “brand loyalty.” They both represented masculine, athletic images of priests — the report mentions McCarrick being called back from a Bahamas fishing trip the first time he met John Paul, in 1976, and many early images of John Paul show him skiing.

“I felt like I was watching it happen — these two guys’ guys, creating this rapport, and to me it was like: ‘Oh my God,’” she said. “You could see it planting the seeds for this enabling friendship. The whole report to me is about masculinity, and they connected on a personal, very masculine level. John Paul believed what he wanted to believe, about his loyal friend who delivered money and vocations.”

Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America, was torn by the report. It didn’t show bad intentions, but did it show good ones?

“Unless you can convince me otherwise, I think he believed what McCarrick told him and he felt the accusations were untrue. It’s a human error, even by someone who was declared a saint,” said Martens. He then considered the reports the pope got about McCarrick sharing beds with seminarians who were his responsibility. “He hears there is a sharing of beds, but ‘We don’t know if there was sexual activity.’ Hello? Sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing, but the alternative is that I start crying.”

Martens said he didn’t think the report affects John Paul’s sainthood — but then paused over the fact that more wasn’t done. The Vatican didn’t pursue its own interviews with the priest-accuser, nor did it try to seek out the senders of the letters, who referenced McCarrick’s “nephews.”

“He made an error of judgment for sure. ... I don’t think the report shows any malice or coverup on the part of John Paul II,” Martens said. “The impression I got on first reading was that it was a man operating based off of incomplete information. You see how there is a culture of silence. I might change my mind. I don’t think you can understand the document in one reading.”



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