Why did John Paul ll fail to address sexual abuse in the Church
Clifford Longley writing in The Tablet lays blame for failure to address sex abuse scandal at door of John Paul ll’s pre- Vatican ll conservatism
“In all the soul searching in the Catholic Church over clerical child abuse and its cover-up, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the role played by Pope John Paul II. There seems to be a conscious refusal, particularly in the right-wing Catholic media, to acknowledge the responsibility he bore for years of evasion, negligence and even criminal complicity. John Paul II is their model, their hero. His image must not be tarnished.”
The evidence is plentiful. Excuses are less easy to come by. Karol Wojtyla, even before he was elected Pope, was aware that the Communist regime that ruled his native Poland was ever willing to invent accusations of sexual misconduct as a weapon against the Catholic clergy. That appears to have shaped his response when, as Pope, he was faced with clear information that Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, was a habitual sex offender who included child abuse and incest among his many crimes.
But there is more to it than that. Marcial Maciel was his kind of Catholic, and the Legion was his kind of Catholicism. It was authoritarian and ultra-conservative, and the head man’s word was law, not to be challenged. It was, so to speak, more Opus Dei than Opus Dei – another organisation John Paul II was to favour. He dismissed the sort of spiritual and moral deviation being alleged as just not credible.
Or take the case of Cardinal Bernard Law. He was hounded out of Boston, Massachusetts, as told in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, and offered refuge in the Vatican to escape the clutches of the Boston public prosecutor. But rather than opt for a quiet life, he became a major player inside the Vatican. He belonged to more dicasteries than any other cardinal, and used his positions to promote a conservative authoritarian agenda. Yet this man had repeatedly protected abusive priests, moving them round his diocese in response to complaints so they would abuse again and again. He caused a vast amount of human misery. Yet in the Vatican he was a major policy influence on John Paul II.
Or take the case of Theodore McCarrick, whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal in spite of widespread rumours about his sexual proclivities. Or the case of Hans Gröer of Vienna, another of his protégés, who had to stand down when his history of sexual wrongdoing was exposed. And indeed, George Pell, promoted by John Paul II to cardinal in 2003 – the same year he promoted Keith O’Brien. And these are just some of the figures he advanced to the top of the Catholic tree. Why could he not see it? Because they were loyal and unimaginative, safe pairs of hands who did not question the received Catholic orthodoxy – John Paul II’s orthodoxy – on issues, above all, of marriage, sex and gender. That was the Catholic “product” that good salesmen did not criticise.
There was perhaps another reason, more subtle and fundamental than this. I greatly admire John Paul II’s work to develop and modernise Catholic Social Teaching, whose underlying philosophy is Thomistic and Aristotelian. But in sexual matters he went off piste, so to speak, to apply the phenomenological theories of an obscure German philosopher called Edmund Husserl.
And whatever else you may think of it, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” did not throw much light on child sex abuse. It was non-procreative sex, so he could not approve of it. But he would see it only as a breach of chastity and celibacy by the perpetrator, to be condemned for that reason. This was not what sex was “for”. And said perpetrator could, after Confession, be absolved and returned to his duties – perhaps with the stipulation that he move away and break off relations with the person he’d abused. I don’t think child victims, per se, would have been on his theological radar.
It is not entirely irrelevant that sexual abuse survivors held a protest demonstration when John Paul II was canonised. The mess the Church is in today was brewed up during the 27 years of his papacy. Indeed, in the eyes of some critics, his real mission was to thwart the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, restoring the Church to where it was before. I suspect it was not so deliberate. He saw the whole Church and the whole world through the lens of pre-war Polish Counter-Reformation Catholicism. That was what shaped his vision. Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse was simply part of that.