As the Roman Catholic Church tries to defend Pope Benedict XVI from criticism over his handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal, the record of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, is also getting attention. New questions are being raised about whether the most popular pope of the last century played a role in covering up cases of sex abuse.
When John Paul died five years ago, millions of faithful poured into Rome for his funeral, chanting, "Santo subito" or "Make him a saint now." Just two months later, Benedict XVI waived the usual five-year waiting period and put the Polish-born pope on the fast track to sainthood.
But in recent weeks, allegations have surfaced that the late pope — or at least members of his inner circle — obstructed an investigation into Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ who had both molested young boys and fathered several children with different women.
"It is clear now that during the '80s or '90s, there were important cases — for instance, the abuse case of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ — which were shelved in the Vatican, which were hushed up," says veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi.
'Stronger Forces Within The Vatican'
Politi says John Paul's longtime associate, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the current pope, wanted to investigate Maciel.
"Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, was pushing in order to open a proceeding against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, but there were stronger forces within the Vatican who stopped him," Politi says.
In 2006, now-Pope Benedict was finally able to banish Maciel. A long investigative report in the last issue of the National Catholic Reporter revealed that Maciel sent streams of money to the Vatican to buy support for his order.
The Italian weekly L'espresso estimates the Legion's assets at more than $30 billion.
Paying The Price
Equally serious allegations concern the case of the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, accused of abusing an estimated 2,000 boys over decades. His successor, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, has criticized the Vatican's handling of that scandal when it emerged in 1995.
Schoenborn said officials close to Pope John Paul blocked an investigative commission. Schoenborn even revealed that then-Cardinal Ratzinger confided sadly, "The other party has prevailed."
Vatican expert Sandro Magister says the Catholic Church is paying the price for its past sins.
"For a certain period, from the '60s to the '90s, in the U.S. as well as in Europe, there was a climate of sexual permissiveness, in which the gravity of sex abuse of minors was underestimated, and when priests were involved, even bishops looked the other way," Magister says. "It's not fair to pin the blame on John Paul II."
A Church Beseiged?
Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, says that within the priesthood, there is a certain mistrust of the secular world. And the Polish pope, who grew up under totalitarian regimes, often saw the church besieged by the outside world, Mickens says.
"Those who wear the Roman collar, those who are part of all this, believe that they are maligned unfairly," Mickens says. "John Paul II may have felt that this was again this onslaught of the Nazis or the communists, but now secularists, secularism, to discredit the church. If you look at what some people have been saying in the Vatican, that kind of paranoia has not gone away at all."
In a letter written in 2001, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, under John Paul's auspices, ordered all clerical sex abuse cases be sent to his department and that all cases be subject to pontifical secrecy. His No. 2 at the time, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said in a 2002 interview, "It seems to me there is no basis for demanding that a bishop be obliged to turn to civil magistrates and denounce a priest who has confided to him to have committed the crime of pedophilia."
As the Vatican and the pope face threats of lawsuits and even criminal proceedings in some countries, Vatican officials are now insisting that the Holy See has always recommended to its bishops that they report abusive priests to the police.