John Paul II and the Clergy Abuse Crisis: Can Saints Make Mistakes?

Pope John Paul II "Ain't No Saint," says the New York Times' Maureen Dowd, and she's not alone.

(photo: Wikipedia)

This week, as millions of Catholics travel to Rome for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, thie New York Times' columnist, Maureen Dowd, attacked the decision to proclaim the Church's first Polish pope a saint.

John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways. But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint. 

It is not the first time Dowd has pounded away at the credibilty of the Catholic Church or of a pope, and it won't be the last. But it is worth pausing to register her remarks because her anger is shared by many Catholics who believe John Paul tolerated or dismissed the cancer of clergy sexual abuse while he was pope, rather than removing negligent bishops and challenging a status quo that permitted huge financial settlements made by dioceses, during the 1980s and 1990s, without  real institutional reform.

Yet, it cannot be denied that John Paul also inspired the struggle to liberate Eastern Europe form Soviet dominiation, and that his personal virtue and spiritual paternity drew many Catholics back to the Church, gave the disabled and the vulnerable a renewed respect for their own inviolable dignity,  and encouraged thousands of young people to embrace a priestly or religious vocation. At the time of his funeral in 2005, many in St. Peter's Square spontaneously called for his canonization.

George Weigel, John Paul II's biographer, offered judgment of the pope's record on the clergy abuse crisis during an April 24 interview with National Review's Kathryn Lopez. Weigel confirmed that John Paul was deceived by the "master deceiver" and serial abuser — Father Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ. But Weigel defended the pope's efforts to address the crisis in a comprehensive mannter, once he fully grasped the problem. 

John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood. The Catholic priesthood in 1978 was in arguably its worst shape since the Reformation: thousands of men had abandoned the ministry, and we now know that others — a small minority, but one was one too many — were behaving horribly in betraying the trust of the young. The crisis of the priesthood was addressed by John Paul II comprehensively, by his teaching, his example, his reform of seminaries, and his reform of the world episcopate. The first thing to be said in fairness about John Paul II and the priesthood is that he is one of the great papal reformers of the priesthood.

Second, it’s clear that the Holy See and the pope were not living the abuse crisis in “real time” with the Church in the United States in 2002, an information lag that led to a misimpression of inattention or refusal to face facts.

Third, when John Paul II was fully informed of what had been revealed in the first four months of 2002, he acted decisively, summoning the American cardinals to the Vatican and initiating a process that led to a major and further reform of U.S. seminaries.

Fourth, the rigorous way the Catholic Church has dealt with what is a societal plague — the sexual abuse of the young — should be taken as a model for other institutions. The plague is real, but a one-eyed obsession with the plague’s impact on the Catholic Church makes it more difficult to address the far more widespread crisis of sexual abuse: within families (where the majority of the abuse of the young takes place) or in government-run schools. One does no good service to the young, and to the protection of the young, by using this horrible problem and these wicked acts to attack the credibility of the Church’s moral teaching on matters that cut against the grain of contemporary lifestyle libertinism.

Weigel also made the point that God — not the Church or the pope — "makes saints." And that fact acknowledges a deep mystery in the making of a saint, and reveals the connection between divine action and the reciprocity of an individual believer, with all his or her human strengths and limitations.

Some will be "great" saints and some will go unnoticed. I once read a story that described the accidental discovery of the incorruptible body of a long-dead sister who reportedly had attracted no special attention during her lifetime.  Saints, said St. Thomas Aquinas, make God the beginning and end of their lives. What form that takes can be radical and disturbing, but it doesn't necessarily mean they won't make mistakes out of ignorance or naiveté.  

Will Weigel's answer satisfy every Catholic whose faith has been badly damaged by the clergy abuse crisis, or — much worse — whose own innocence was shattered by a trusted pastor?  It seems unlikely. But the mystery of sanctity is that it seems to transcend boundaries, transforming and healing souls almost extinguished by suffering, sin and the depravity of others. I, for one, have witnessed the fruits of John Paul's holiness firsthand, and I invite others, including Maureen Dowd, to deepen their own knowledge of his life, works, and teachings. 

One place to start is my interview with Ania Dadak, the daughter of one of John Paul's closest friends and collaborators. Her mother, Wanda, was a concentration camp survivor — one of the "human guinea pigs" forced to participate in the notorious "experiments" performed at the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. John Paul may not have understood the nature of the clergy abuse crisis that wreaked havoc in our church, but he shared everything he had with Wanda, who had everything taken from her.  Read their story here.