The role of Pope John Paul II in a corrupt Catholic Church

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While a lot of the attention and blame for the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church has focused on Pope Ratzinger’s role, John Paul II has had a shameful history as well. Yesterday, I wrote about his lack of action against, and even the promotion of, an abusive Canadian priest Bernard Prince. Even more shocking are the recent revelations of his close relationship with Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a powerful order known as the Legionaries of Christ. When he died in 2008 at the age of 87,

Maciel left an ecclesiastical empire with which the church must now contend. The Italian newsweekly L’espresso estimates the Legion’s assets at 25 billion euros, with a $650 million annual budget, according to The Wall Street Journal. The order numbered 700 priests and 1,300 seminarians in 2008.

This expose by Jason Berry in the April 6, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter lays out the awful details. I will give only a few details. You have to read the whole thing to get a sense of the scale of the corruption. If you did not know better, you would think that this article was describing the workings of some weird hybrid organization made up of the Mafia and a cult. It is a shocking story of money, sex, power, intrigue, and corruption in the Catholic Church. Religion plays hardly any role except as a cover for the corruption.

In his time, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado was the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic church. He was also a magnetic figure in recruiting young men to religious life in an era when vocations were plummeting. Behind that exalted façade, however, Maciel was a notorious pedophile, and a man who fathered several children by different women. His life was arguably the darkest chapter in the clergy abuse crisis that continues to plague the church.

The saga of the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, a secretive, cult-like religious order now under Vatican investigation, opens into a deeper story of how one man’s lies and betrayal dazzled key figures in the Roman curia and how Maciel’s money and success helped him find protection and influence. For years, the heads of Vatican congregations and the pope himself ignored persistent warnings that something was rotten in the community where Legionaries called their leader Nuestro Padre, “Our Father,” and considered him a living saint.

This much is well established from previous reporting: Maciel was a morphine addict who sexually abused at least 20 Legion seminarians from the 1940s to the ’60s… Maciel began fathering children in the early 1980s — three of them by two Mexican women, with reports of a third family with three children in Switzerland. (my italics)

And yet, despite all this, John Paul II kept supporting him.

Even as he was trailed by pedophilia accusations, Maciel attracted large numbers of seminarians in an era of dwindling vocations. In 1994 Pope John Paul II heralded him as “an efficacious guide to youth.” John Paul continued praising Maciel after a 1997 Hartford Courant investigation by Gerald Renner and this writer exposed Maciel’s drug habits and abuse of seminarians.

In 2004, John Paul — ignoring the canon law charges against Maciel — honored him in a Vatican ceremony in which he entrusted the Legion with the administration of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center, an education and conference facility.

It was only in 2004 that Ratzinger “banished him from active ministry to “a life of prayer and repentance” for abusing seminarians.” Maciel’s life and success in the Catholic Church shows how money has corrupted the institution. The reason that the Vatican was willing to overlook his crimes was because he created a huge financial empire that used its resources to curry favor with top Vatican officials by essentially buying their support with cash contributions.

For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each.

The Vatican office with the greatest potential to derail Maciel’s career before 2001 — the year that Ratzinger persuaded John Paul to consolidate authority of abuse investigations in his office – was the Congregation for Religious, which oversaw religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Legionaries, among many others.

According to two former Legionaries who spent years in Rome, Maciel paid for the renovation of the residence in Rome for the Argentine cardinal who was prefect of religious from 1976 to 1983, the late Eduardo Francisco Pironio.

To his credit, the article says that Ratzinger was one of the few people who rejected one such cash bribe.

The article goes on to say that Maciel had rich and influential supporters, within and outside the church. One of them was the highly influential Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1990 to 2006 and now dean of the college of cardinals, who was the beneficiary of large gifts of cash and lavish parties thrown in his honor by Maciel, and who in turn put pressure on other Vatican officials, including Ratzinger, to not investigate the charges against Maciel. In fact, this report suggests that Ratzinger was better than John Paul II at dealing with Maciel and was the one who finally pulled the plug on him, though belatedly and quietly. (Sodano was the cardinal who in this year’s Easter sermon reiterated that the sex allegations against the church were merely “petty gossip”.)

Lay supporters included Steve McEveety, producer of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (Legion priests advised on the film), Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who spoke at Legion conferences; Spanish opera singer Placido Domingo, who performed at a fundraiser, Harvard Law Professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, “former CNN religion correspondent Delia Gallagher spoke at a Legion fundraiser, and William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, defended Maciel in a letter to the Hartford Courant , after a 1997 article that exposed Maciel’s history of pedophilia. Two Legion priests are TV news celebrities: Jonathan Morris on FOX, and Tom Williams, a theology professor at the Legion university in Rome, for NBC during Katie Couric’s coverage of the 2005 conclave and again with Couric at CBS.” People may recognize Legion priest Jonathan Morris, a telegenic priest who often appears on TV.

The basic problem is that the church hierarchy is more concerned about protecting the church than the victims. The Vatican has now issued new guidelines that say “for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law.”

So they finally deign to follow the same laws that the rest of us must obey.

POST SCRIPT 1: What to do about the abuses in the Catholic Church?

John Hodgman thinks he knows how to solve the problem.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'You’re Welcome – Church Scandal Prevention
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On Monday, April 19 at 7:45pm I will be talking to Case people about my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom in the 5th floor Library in the Clocktower building of The Village at 115.


  1. says

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    Rajnish Kumar

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