PROMINENT Roman Catholics have sought to defend the late Pope St John Paul II, after a Vatican report exposed errors of judgement in his promotion of an American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who was later laicised for sexual crimes over three decades.
“This report demonstrates how St John Paul II was cynically misled,” the President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, said. “He did not receive full and complete information from American bishops about McCarrick’s moral conduct, while McCarrick himself lied in claiming he had not had sexual relations with anyone.”
The Archbishop was reacting to media coverage of the 460-page report, which describes how RC clergy and laypeople had attempted to draw their Church’s attention to abuses by McCarrick, who served as a bishop and archbishop in New York, New Jersey, Newark, and Washington, DC.
The canonised pope was also defended by both the Knights of Columbus, who run a St John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC, and his biographer, George Weigel, who wrote, in the American journal First Things, that the McCarrick case showed that “even brilliant and holy men, even saints, can be deceived.”
The report, published after two years’ work by a commissionin Rome, relates how John Paul II appointed McCarrick Archbishop of Washington in 2000, raising him to cardinal a year later, after being badly advised by counsellors on both sides of the Atlantic.
It highlights general failures in the vetting process for RC episcopal appointments, notably concerning past inappropriate or criminal behaviour, and says that John Paul may have believed McCarrick’s denials because of his experiences in Poland, where communist-era secret police often used false sexual-misconduct claims to ensnare clergy.
The report also hints at misjudgements by other senior figures, including the Polish Pope’s long-serving secretary, the retired Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who handled correspondence with McCarrick, including a key letter of self-justification in 2000 which “significantly contributed” to his advancement.
Cardinal Dziwisz, now 81, has rebutted separate claims in a Polish TV documentary that he connived in covering up sexual abuse by clergy while he was Archbishop of Kraków, from 2005 to 2016.
The reputation of St John Paul II (1920-2005) is highly sensitive in his native Poland, where the Catholic Church lobbied for his early beatification and canonisation in 2014, but was rebuffed when it petitioned the Vatican and bishops worldwide, a year ago, to have him elevated still further as a Doctor of the Church and patron saint of Europe.
The Vatican report is expected to spur more critical evaluations, however, notably over his appointment of other discredited church leaders, including Cardinal Keith O’Brien, of Edinburgh, who resigned in 2013 amid accusations of sexual immorality.
In an editorial last week, the liberal weekly National Catholic Reporter called on bishops in the United States to suppress the cult of St John Paul II, arguing that his “calamitous, callous decision-making” had endangered children and young adults, “undermining the global church’s witness and shattering its credibility as an institution”.
John Paul II’s record was vigorously defended in Poland, however, where the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin rejected the “untruthful accusations, calumnies and slanders” against him, insisting in a statement that John Paul II had himself tightened canonical sanctions against sexual abusers.
McCarrick, now 90, was stripped of his priesthood in February 2019, after a church investigation and trial found him guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power. He is the most senior RC church official in modern times to be laicised. His whereabouts have not been publicly known since he left a Capuchin friary in Kansas earlier this year.
Read comment on the story from Andrew Brown, and in his press column