Pope John Paul II waves to faithful as he crosses St. Peter's square at the Vatican in April, 1997. Photo: AP
It's a simple proposition. There is no place in the list of Catholic saints for someone who gave succour to paedophiles. But that is what the Catholic Church seems determined to do with the mooted canonisation of former pope John Paul II.
It is not suggested that John Paul was a paedophile. Sadly, though, there is evidence that he harboured and effectively protected a serial offender. There is also good reason to claim that it was during his time as pontiff that paedophilia prospered, with accountability and management structures not only failing to act, but seemingly putting their main energies into protecting the institution and covering up the problems.
For a pope these amounted to monumental failures of duty, the cost of which is directly borne by the victims. They resulted in a perversion of the church's role, a total negation of its mission and message. Apart from direct involvement in child abuse, which has not and is not here suggested, it is difficult to imagine a more grievous distortion or failure. On a purely organisational level it is likely that the church will struggle for generations to gain the faith and confidence of what is otherwise known as ''the faithful''.
The accusations against John Paul fall into two categories. The first relates to the notorious case of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder and promoter of a traditionalist order known as the Legionaries of Christ. For many years John Paul refused to listen to, or accept as worthy of investigation, repeated accusations against Maciel that he molested young men at his seminaries. John Paul not only turned his back on these allegations, but he also made Maciel an honoured person in the Vatican. He was a sort of protected species, untouchable.
It is telling that within a month of becoming pope, Benedict XVI moved against Maciel, stripping him of his religious faculties and isolating him as the pariah that seemingly he was. Following Maciel's death in 2008, having avoided prosecution, Benedict authorised the prompt dismantling of his religious organisation. It seems that Benedict had been earlier urging his predecessor to move against Maciel, but for whatever reason John Paul was in the thrall of Maciel.
The Maciel case is one instance where the former pope's actions, or lack of, are his own responsibility. Of course, it is possible that John Paul could not personally believe that such allegations were true, that his belief in the goodness of others blinded him to an evil reality in his midst. Even so, there is little to excuse such a failure of his broader responsibility to protect innocent victims. In today's context John Paul's stewardship in this matter was abject and disgraceful, hardly worthy of sainthood.
But there is another element to the failures of John Paul in the area of child abuse. That relates to the culture and the theological emphasis on which the former pope built a large part of his leadership as pontiff. This was manifested in a number of ways, particularly a focus on protecting and building the organisational church to a point where its protection supplanted its real mission. John Paul had an enormous and powerful international persona. On major issues of his time, such as the fall of communism, he was a towering figure. However, his projection of leadership to the outside world was at variance to his exercise of leadership within.
He was autocratic (few popes have been otherwise), but in a modern organisational way. He built an organisation that traded in absolutes with little scope for nuance or difference. Such was his persona and so long his tenure that he effectively created an organisation in the Vatican and the wider church that lost its local leadership credentials. This was experienced directly by the Australian bishops in their five-yearly visits to Rome to report on their stewardship. There they confronted Vatican colonels who disparaged and ridiculed their performance as not being strong or pure enough.
In time this led to a sycophantic style of leadership where only those who agreed unquestioningly were listened to and advanced. An effect of this was played out in the quality of the appointments to local dioceses, which marginalised the pastoral and elevated a model of leadership that became increasingly disconnected from the people and focused on a Vatican list of performance measures. Seemingly key among these was to protect the church as an organisation and deny any failures.
John Paul's model of leadership appears to have drawn much from the model of civic leadership that he personally knew well and observed as a citizen of communist Poland. In style and outcome that leadership model seems to have much in common with the leadership of the politburo of the Polish communist party - dissent meant exclusion, absolute compliance with the leader was paramount and any discussion on alternative approaches was furtive and ultimately futile. It was in this milieu that acknowledgment of child abuse was effectively discouraged, that protection of the organisation was paramount and suggestions that systemic change might be needed were dismissed as heresy.
It is time that the Catholic Church got over the urge to canonise its popes. It is a self-serving obsession born out of a misguided view of church. Much hesitation has surrounded the push to canonise Pius XII due to alleged complicity with the Nazis. In John Paul's case, his complicity with the sexual abuse scandal and his responsibility for the organisational culture that allowed it to flourish unhindered is reason enough for his cause for sainthood to be put aside.
In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul proclaimed birth control to be ''intrinsically evil''. Such terminology effectively cast aside millions of his flock. There is little doubt it is institutional sexual abuse that is most accurately described as intrinsically evil. And yet this was the evil at his door that John Paul failed to deal with. It would be a warped interpretation of the church's mission for John Paul's failure in the area of child abuse to be overlooked in the rush to canonise him.
- Terry Fewtrell is an active Canberra Catholic.