Pope John Paul's Path to Sainthood: A Rush to Judgment?

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Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty Images

Workers setup a giant photo of late Pope John Paul II at St Peter's square on April 27, 2011 at The Vatican. John Paul II will be honoured on May 1 at a solemn beatification ceremony in Saint Peter's basilica that will give the late pontiff "blessed" status for the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and put him on the path towards full sainthood.

When hundreds of thousands of Catholics gather in Rome Sunday for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, not everyone will be celebrating. For the victims of sexual abuse by predatory priests, the ceremony — a major step towards sainthood — is too much too soon for a Pontiff they say failed to adequately confront the crimes committed by members of his church. "It's the rubbing of salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of thousands of victims," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The signal that his beatification basically sends to church employees across the globe is that no matter how many children are harmed because of your inaction, your clerical career won't suffer."

Nobody denies the accomplishments of the famously charismatic pope, who died in 2005: his confrontation of the Soviet Union, his travels in the name of evangelism, and his courage under the ravages of Parkinson's diseases. But when it came to confronting the rot within his own institution, says Clohessy, the late pope was all but absent: "In his more than 25 years as the world's most powerful religious figure, we can't think of a single predatory priest or complicit bishop who experienced any consequences whatsoever for committing or concealing heinous child sex crimes."

For much of John Paul's papacy, the church's sex abuse crisis bubbled mostly underground. But when it did break through the surface, the pope's response was most noticeable for its absence. Hans Hermann Groer, an Austrian cardinal accused of abusing more than 2,000 boys over several decades, was made to retire as bishop of Vienna when the scandal broke in 1995, but was never punished or forced to apologize. (Groer died in 2003.) The Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado continued to receive John Paul's support after allegations emerged in the late 1990s that he had abused seminarians.

"Time and again, John Paul simply refused to take the hard decisive steps that a visionary leader would take," says Jason Berry, author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, and two books on the sex abuse scandal. "The way he responded to the accusations against Father Maciel by basically ignoring them, acting as if they didn't even exist, is not only a sign of a terrible denial on his part, but also an unwillingness to confront the full impact of evil." Maciel remained unpunished until after the John Paul's death in 2005, when Benedict XVI ordered him to leave the ministry for "a life of penitence and prayer." Maciel died in 2008.

John Paul's admirers acknowledge that the pope could have done more, but they say that his failings during the sex abuse scandal fail to blot out his greater virtues. "Do I think he could have done better?" says Phil Lawler editor of CatholicCulture.org. "Yes. But the idea that all of it comes home to roost at the Vatican is an idea that I've never found persuasive. He was in a position where he had limited options and limited power. If you consider the man's whole life as a body, that's in the negative column, and there's so much in the positive column."

John Paul II's accelerated path to sainthood — beatification usually takes decades — means that the late pope is being honored even as his legacy regarding his handling of the sex abuse case continues to be examined. A report by the Irish government is expected next month on recent failures by the church to confront sexual abuse in the rural diocese of Cloyne. The bishop in charge during the period under examination previously served as a private secretary to three popes, including John Paul II.

The Polish pope's ascent toward canonization can be compared to another papal candidacy for sainthood. Pope Pius XII was also revered during his lifetime, but has since become a much more controversial figure for his public silence in the face of the Holocaust. More than 50 years after his death, he remains on the path towards sainthood, but his case the process faces increasing opposition and he has not yet been beatified. "I don't think that John Paul was ever taken to full account by the news media during the last decade of his life," says Berry. "Hagiography at this point is premature at best and at worst an insult to the many people who have been harmed. There's a good chance it could backfire."