VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II’s biographer and longtime spokesman sought Friday to defend his record on sex abuse against evidence that he didn’t grasp the scale of the scandal until very late in his papacy.
John Paul’s record and his support for the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order despite credible allegations he was a pedophile have come under fresh scrutiny in the run-up to the pontiff’s canonization Sunday, the fastest in modern times.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls and official biographer George Weigel pointed to John Paul’s decision in April 2002 — the year the scandal exploded publicly in the U.S. — to summon U.S. cardinals to Rome as evidence he acted decisively once he learned about the problem.
“I think there was an information gap between the United States and the Holy See in the first months of 2002 so that the pope was not living this crisis in real time as we were in the USA,” Weigel told a Vatican press conference. “Once he became fully informed in April of that year, he acted decisively to deal with these problems.”
Yet U.S. bishops had been petitioning the Holy See for faster ways to defrock pedophile priests since the late 1980s. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had asked the Vatican legal office for ways to accelerate the process for the universal church in 1988 because he too was seeing cases piling up.
Ratzinger, who for a quarter-century met regularly with John Paul as his chief doctrine czar, finally wrested control of all abuse cases in 2001, making sure his office reviewed them individually to tell bishops how to proceed.
In December 2002, John Paul eventually accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston after church files detailed how he had allowed priests to continue serving after repeated allegations of sexual abuse. But in a sign that he didn’t view the resignation as punishment, John Paul then named Law to the prestigious job as archpriest of one of the Vatican’s major basilicas in Rome.
Navarro-Valls said John Paul found it difficult to accept that priests might abuse children because of the “purity of his thought.” But he said he eventually did accept it.