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Whether the pope knew is the wrong question

Whether the Polish pope knew about the abuse is not the main issue: even if he was not aware of the consequences of his actions, they nevertheless consolidated the conditions that made sin so widespread in the Church.
Whether the pope knew is the wrong question
illustrator: Weronika Reroń

“John Paul II was unaware of the scale of sexual abuse in the Church. Once he realized how widespread and persistent it was, he began to act”, some say. To this others reply: “But it’s impossible that he didn’t know.” Those two sentiments structure the debate about abuse in the Church. This is so because those who agree with the former statement are far more numerous and influential and thus define the terms of the debate to their own advantage. How? When the discussion revolves around the awareness of abuse, the pope’s responsibility for the crisis becomes reduced to this singular question. Did he know? His defenders may thus point to specific situations of which the pope was likely not aware, reiterating the conclusion that, generally speaking, Karol Wojtyła neither “knew” nor “understood the scale of the problem.” Documents that clearly confirm he both knew and understood are after all hard to come by.

Hence, we must change the terms of this conversation. Yes, we may continue investigating how the pope reacted to each case that we know was brought to his attention, but that is hardly the only or the most important task. What we actually need to do is study the problem of abuse and violence systematically. We need to ask to what extent John Paul II co-created the conditions that enabled the violence to spread and the evidence to remain hidden.


Clericalism – the supreme power of the formal religious hierarchy – fundamentally enables sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis himself identified the problem, as did lay commentators who note that many in the Church still believe the clergy is superior to the ordinary members of the Catholic community, and that such sense of superiority leads to impunity. When priests and bishops committed abuse or covered it up, they did so without fearing the consequences.

Clericalism is deeply entrenched in the Catholic Church and affects how clergymen of all levels interact with the faithful in myriad ways. Karol Wojtyła recognized some of those and worked to challenge select stereotypes surrounding the role of a bishop, a cardinal, or a pope. But he did little to fight clericalism itself. In fact, he did much to keep the system intact: within the Vatican he continued to marginalize the lay, especially laywomen, and relentlessly defended celibacy. This buttressed clericalism because, as noted by Radosław Tyrała, celibacy “creates a sense of distance between the clergy and the rest of the society … It also leads to a conflict of interests between the society and this separate clerical community whose needs and aims differ.” Admittedly, it may well be possible for priests to remain unmarried without the negative consequences, but such an outcome could only be ensured with serious changes in the seminaries’ curricula and in the social role of the priests. Those changes, however, were never the subject of any serious discussion in John Paul II’s Vatican. And the pope himself frequently stressed the importance of celibacy (for instance in his apostolic exhortation “Pastores dabo vobis”) reinforcing the distinctiveness of the world of the clergy from that of the lay. The world of the former remained beyond the reach of the ordinary faithful and thus beyond their judgement.

It is worth noting that clericalism has many other implications that contradict the words of the Gospel. The world it creates includes the distasteful luxury enjoyed by some high-level clergy – think the extravagant residences of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst or Sławoj Leszek Głódź. But if it was possible to ignore the absurd excess and inequality within the Church, with the reports on sexual abuse coming in from across the world, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that clericalism enables systemic covering up of crimes.


Membership in this distinct clerical group comes with its own culture. That is a culture of secrecy. As detailed by the French journalist Frédéric Martel in his popular book “In the Closet of the Vatican,” socially-enforced secrecy particularly affects gay priests. Martel’s book did not escape criticism; Catholic News Agency analyst Andrea Gagliarducci and chief editor of the journal “Famille Chrétienne” Antoine-Marie Izoard both questioned the veracity of Martel’s account. But as the ex-General Superior of the Dominican Order Timothy Radcliffe said: “If only half of what he claims is true, we are still faced with revelations that are stunning.”

Martel is not alone in insisting that gay men make up a relatively high percentage of the clergy in comparison to that of the general male population. At the same time, the Catholic Church presents homosexuality as “objectively disordered” and associates it with a number of negative stereotypes. These stereotypes force many priests to disguise an important aspect of their identity. Some of them create clandestine networks which can at times be used to hide, and even to organize opportunities for, sexual violence. The orientation of these men is not the cause of the crimes committed, but the stigmatization of all gay priests reinforces the culture of secrecy in which criminals may thrive.

Karol Wojtyła was responsible for fortifying the pathological potential of the secrecy culture. In 1992 he approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church which calls for “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” towards gays and lesbians and decries “every sign of unjust discrimination,” but also condemns “homosexual acts” and claims those “do not proceed from a genuine affective … complementarity.” The Catechism thus ignores the experiences of happiness, love, intimacy, and affection that frequently feature in relationships between people regardless of their sex or gender; experiences that both psychologists and the people in question consider meaningful. Other Church writings from John Paul II’s pontificate do not remedy that mistake. Therefore, these teachings portray gays and lesbians (other members of the LGBTQ+ community are barely mentioned) as persons who are somehow not fully human, whose emotional lives are lesser than those of straight people. The destructive power of such prejudice is obvious and has a particularly pronounced negative effect on the emotional and sexual development of priests. And impeded development, in turn, is known to increase the risk of child sexual abuse.

The Polish pope not only shared such harmful opinions but promoted others who did the same. John Paul II nominated Joseph Ratzinger to be the Prefect of the Holy Office, a man who in 1992 published “Some considerations concerning the response to legislative proposals on the non-discrimination of homosexual persons” . The text states explicitly that limiting the rights of this group is “not only licit but obligatory.” It mentions not only child adoption but also “military recruitment,” “screening potential tenants” and “employment of teachers or athletic coaches.” Further, we learn that “legislation which would make homosexuality a basis for entitlements could actually encourage a person with a homosexual orientation to declare his homosexuality.” Beyond the obvious discrimination thus entailed in this text, there is another message of great importance: if you are an LGBTQ+ believer, make sure to hide the truth about your identity. If you reveal it, you should not be surprised you will not be treated well.

The Church is slow to realize that discrimination against gay priests has contributed to the spread of abuse and violence within the institution. Many remain committed to John Paul II’s legacy and favor this morally faulty and deeply counterproductive set of practices, operating on the misguided assumption that suppressing the priests’ (homo)sexuality prevents abuse and immoral acts. But the truth is, to reiterate, that sexual orientation itself plays no role in causing abuse. Numerous reports and scientific publications confirm this to be true. In relation to the Church, two reports commissioned by US and German bishops summarize those findings. The latter report even recommends that the Church reconsider the 2005 formal ban on ordaining gay men as priests.

Hiding the truth has been, and continues to be, a problem rather than a solution. But this fact is difficult to notice for those raised in the secrecy culture of the clergy.


The argument so far shows why we have to change the terms of the conversation and shift focus away from the individual crimes towards a systemic analysis of conditions that enabled persistent abuse. But this does not mean that we should disregard the instances when John Paul II almost certainly knew. Thomas P. Doyle recounts one such instance in his article for the “National Catholic Reporter.” Doyle, himself a member of the Dominican order and a devoted warrior against child abuse in the Church, recounts the time he spent working in the Vatican embassy in the USA. In the mid-1980s he sent to his superiors in Rome a report on sexual crimes committed by a priest who soon was to be the first clergyman convicted of sexual abuse in the US. The pope, Vatican replied, would fulfill Doyle’s request and send an envoy to Philadelphia, but this envoy was a “mistake.” Hence Doyle followed up with another, more comprehensive report, in which he and his co-authors urged American bishops to take action. He even spoke to Silvio Oddi, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who promised to pass on the information to the pope personally. But then the Vatican fell silent.

Only a decade later John Paul II finally issued an indult enabling the US clergy to change the procedure for handling reports of sexual crimes. That indult applied only to the US; the wider Catholic Church had to wait until 2001 for the pope’s ecclesiastical letter “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,” which set new procedures for responding to violence and abuse. This surely represented a step in the right direction. But it hardly warrants the praises sang by the pope’s defenders. It was too little too late.

Even when reports reached him, the pope displayed distrust towards those who suffered the horrifying abuse and tried to break the silence. He dismissed, for instance, the multiple allegations against the Viennese archbishop Hans Hermann Gröer. In 1995, John Paul II addressed the Austrian bishops and referred to the “violent attacks on [Gröer’s] honor,” even comparing them to the “unjust accusations” made against Jesus himself. As late as in 2003 the Polish pope continued to scandalize the faithful with his refusal to acknowledge the archbishop’s crimes, which were by then public knowledge. When Gröer died, John Paul II proclaimed that the deceased had served “with great love for Christ and his church” and expressed hope that the archbishop would be “granted the eternal reward that the Lord himself promised to his faithful servants.” The pope’s treatment of another clergyman, the American Bernard Law, provoked a similar scandal. Law, also a thoroughly compromised cleric, was never brought to justice for his role in covering up sexual crimes. On the contrary, John Paul II made him the Archpriest of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome, a symbolic but prestigious position.

The list of the pope’s failures does not end there. Take the infamous Marcial Maciel Degollado. The Vatican was informed he was a suspected pedophile for the first time in 1943, as revealed by João Bráz de Aviz, the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. A long history of accusations followed this report. But none of it stopped John Paul II from meeting and collaborating with the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. In fact, Karol Wojtyła publicly praised Maciel and in 1994 called him an “efficacious guide to the youth.” In 1997, Gerald Renner and Jason Berry published a piece in the American paper “The Hartford Courant” in which nine men came forward accusing Maciel of sexual abuse. But even that did not prompt any change. Only when John Paul II was on his deathbed, Joseph Ratzinger initiated an investigation that led to sentencing the Mexican priest to spending the rest of his life in solitude. But that was the only punishment Maciel ever received. He never faced prison nor was he ever removed from the ranks of the clergy. And of course, neither were Law or Gröer.

The pope’s defenders ignore this uncomfortable truth. When forced into confrontation with reality, they insist that John Paul II did not know, did not understand, did not receive reliable information. That may well have been true in many instances, but even if somehow the pope had managed to remain oblivious to all the cases of abuse we now know of, he cannot be simply absolved of responsibility. The pope is the head of the worldwide Catholic Church and as such has to be held accountable for what takes place in the institution he leads. We are keen to apply this principle in other spheres of life. When scandals surrounding immoral behavior by public officials surface, the public demands the dismissal not only of the lower-level administrators, but of their superiors. We expect those in positions of leadership and power to take responsibility for the people they lead and we consider their ignorance of abuse a sign of ineptitude or even complicity. And given that the pope must have heard enough about the most scandalous cases – such as Gröer’s – he should have at least initiated an investigation. Yet he chose to turn a blind eye. Thus, at the very least he displayed vincible ignorance.


We should then ask: why did the pope make such choices? Historian and social scientist Arkadiusz Stempin provides a possible answer. He examines the systemic factors related to the Church hierarchy as well as the personalities of the men who formed this hierarchy. Karol Wojtyła grew up under state socialism in Poland and strongly believed in the “unity [of the Church] that was under attack from the communists.” This belief intersected with pervasive clericalism, as symbolized by the secret instruction “Crimen sollicitationis,” to produce a sense of distrust in the lay world. Hence, John Paul II as well as his chosen collaborators did not believe the testimonies of those abused sexually, they failed to understand the suffering of those affected and refused to hold the perpetrators accountable. The pope and his people simply did not want to involve the independent, lay legal system in the matters they considered to belong to the world of the clergy. So they ignored uncomfortable information and let impunity be the rule.

This may be a convincing explanation. But it is not an excuse. John Paul II was no good king misled by evil advisers. He was the leader and as such he made the tragedy of abuse and violence worse. He thus has his share of responsibility for plunging the Church into its worst crisis since the Reformation. He thus has his share of responsibility for the suffering. Had he chosen to see and to act, fewer children would have been raped and abused and more criminals – presbyters and bishops alike – would have been held accountable for their actions. In reality, Karol Wojtyła never moved a finger to punish those who enabled the perpetrators to commit crimes time and time again. It is possible that he “did not know.” But what does it matter if there were times when he clearly and simply did not want to know? If the people he placed in positions of responsibility – knowing also they would be in charge when his health deteriorated – did not want to know or act either?

The Polish pope had his achievements, from his contributions to ecumenical and cross-faith dialogue to his role in helping his compatriots join the European Union. But we cannot erase his failures from the tales we tell about him in our community. And those failures are not limited to his treatment of sexual abuse in the Church. We should also seriously engage with his intransigence on the use of contraception at the time when the HIV virus took the lives of thousands in African states with large Catholic populations. After all, there were other clergymen, even some cardinals (among them the Canadian Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Ghanian Peter Turkson , and the Nigerian John Onaiyekan) who saw the crisis and defied unity to declare that using condoms is morally justified in some instances.

This is what changing the terms of the conversation means. John Paul II was a heavily controversial figure and it may be difficult in Poland to raise certain questions about his record, particularly following his (premature, in my opinion) canonization. Sainthood gave him a certain impunity in the eyes of those Church members who treat saints as if they were incapable of sin, despite the fact that there is no theological reason to believe so. Deeply ambiguous figures have been recognized as saints as well, such as the Penitent Thief and many other last-minute converts. Remembering this could help us involve the more orthodox Catholics in the difficult conversation. Without it we can never see the truth. And it has been said that the truth is what will set us free.

Translation: Karolina Partyga

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