DOWD: No halo for scandal-plagued John Paul II

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Maureen DowdYou could fall in love with Pope John Paul II at the drop of a miter.

In 1978, when 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla slalomed onto the world stage as the first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, everything about him captivated Catholics who felt adrift and conflicted.

The merry eyes. The sunny wit. The moral toughness honed during battles against Nazis and Communists. The former actor and factory worker was a skiing cardinal, a mountain-climbing poet, a kayaking philosopher, a singing author.

Twenty-six years later, the crowds at his funeral yelled “Santo subito!” Sainthood now!

On May 1, two days after the Kate and William show, another European spectacle unfolded: Pope Benedict XVI presided over the beatification for the man he revered, the first time in a millennium that a pope has elevated his immediate predecessor and the swiftest ascension toward sainthood on record.

Hoping to get a PR boost by resurrecting John Paul’s magic, Benedict waived the usual five-year wait before starting.

But it won’t take away the indelible stain left by a global sex scandal that continues to sulfurously bubble. The latest grotesquerie, amid a cascade of victims coming forward in Belgium, was a TV interview with the former bishop of Bruges, 74-year-old Roger Vangheluwe, who serenely admitted abusing two nephews.

Certainly, John Paul was admirable in many ways. After he became pope, he was a moral force in the fight against totalitarianism, touring his homeland and giving Poles the courage to resist the Soviet Union. When Lech Walesa signed an agreement with the Communists recognizing Solidarity, he used a pen etched with the face of John Paul.

After Communism collapsed, John Paul offered a stinging critique of capitalism, presciently warning big business to stop pursuing profits “at any price.”

“The excessive hoarding of riches by some denies them to the majority,” he said, “and thus the very wealth that is accumulated generates poverty.”

As progressive as he was on those issues, he was disturbingly regressive on social issues—contraception, women’s ordination, priests’ celibacy, divorce and remarriage. And certainly, John Paul forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood, and simply turned away for many years.

Santo non subito! How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?

For years after the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, was formally accused of pedophilia in a Vatican proceeding, he remained John Paul’s pet. The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.

There was another reason, according to Jason Berry, who has written two books on the abuse crisis and is the author of the forthcoming “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”

“For John Paul,” Berry told me just after returning from Good Friday services, “the priesthood had a romantic, chivalrous cast, and he could not bring himself to do a fearless investigation of the clerical culture itself.”

Now the Vatican is like Wall Street, where companies give their most disgraced CEOs golden parachutes to make up for the stress of outside attack. Except the Vatican gives golden halos.

We are known by our heroes and those we choose to admire.

Pope Benedict has wanted to beatify John Paul, who shielded pedophiles, and Pope Pius XII, who remained silent about the Holocaust as it happened. Meanwhile, Dorothy Day hasn’t been beatified.

Not beatifying or canonizing John Paul would be hugely symbolic, a message far more powerful than the ad hoc apologies and payoffs to victims.

This pope has been better than the last on abuse, Berry said, but “he’s still surrounded by all these cardinals whose hands are dirty in this thing.

“The Vatican rushed into this beatification, but after they take down the stands, the problems will still be there.”•


Dowd is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to

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