Vatican denies 'personal involvement' of John Paul II in Maciel cases

This story appears in the Papal canonizations feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The priest who has guided the Vatican's sainthood process for Pope John Paul II responded vaguely Tuesday when questioned publicly about the late pope's response to clergy sexual abuse and his handling of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and a serial sexual abuser.

When Msgr. Sławomir Oder was asked whether those investigating the saintliness of John Paul II considered if the late pope had sufficiently handled Maciel, who by the late 1990s was the subject of substantial investigative reporting, Oder said the investigations were carried out "with the real desire to clear things up and confront all the problems."

"Even concerning the specific question that you mention, an investigation was carried out, documents were studied, [documents] which are available, and the response was very clear," Oder said. "There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter."

Oder, a Polish native who serves as a vicar in the Rome diocese, is the postulator of the cause of sainthood for John Paul II and was responsible for organizing the official investigations into the late pontiff's sanctity and virtues for the official Vatican process to have John Paul II declared a saint.

Pope Francis is to declare John Paul II, who led the church from 1978 to 2005, a saint on Sunday in a ceremony expected to draw hundreds of thousands to Rome. Also being sainted that day is Pope John XXIII, who led the church from 1958 to 1963 and is known for opening the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops that led to significant reforms in the church.

Oder's comments Tuesday came during a briefing for reporters at the Vatican on the reasons for sainthood for the two late popes. Oder's words indicate that Vatican officials do not have a clear response for questions about John Paul II's relationship with Maciel, whom John Paul II publicly supported for years, calling him in 1994 "an efficacious guide to youth."

While extensive reporting on Maciel's abuse, eventually estimated by the Vatican to have affected "more than 20 but fewer than 100" seminarians in Legionary seminaries, was first undertaken by journalists Jason Berry and Gerald Renner in 1997, Maciel was not publicly punished until 2006, after John Paul II's death, when Pope Benedict XVI ordered the priest to a life of penance.

Tuesday's briefing, named "Why are they saints?", was billed as an opportunity for the Vatican to focus on the holy and saintly lives of the two popes. Also present was Franciscan Fr. Giovangiuseppe Califano, the postulator for the sainthood cause of John XXIII.

The Vatican is hosting a number of similar briefings this week leading up to the formal canonization ceremonies taking place Sunday in St. Peter's Square. Organized by Don Walter Insero, who heads the communications office for the Rome diocese, upcoming briefings are to focus on topics like the miracles attributed to the late popes, how they separately ministered as pope, and how Second Vatican Council impacted each.

Califano and Oder spoke alongside Insero and Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi at Tuesday's briefing, with each speaking in Italian. Fr. Manuel Dorantes, a Mexican-born priest of the Chicago archdiocese, summarized the Italian comments into Spanish and then English.

During his summary of Oder's remarks regarding Maciel, Dorantes clarified that during the investigation of John Paul II's saintliness, "there was no document in [John Paul II's] personal records that tied him to knowledge of anything."

Speaking on John XXIII's life Tuesday, Califano said the late pontiff's holiness was "immediately recognized" following his death and recalled that John's successor, Pope Paul VI, had said that John's name had "become a synonym of the word 'love.' "

Early in his life, John dedicated himself to humility, to accepting whatever God might provide for him, and to acting primarily as a pastor, Califano said. John's entire ministry, he said, could be summarized as "being a shepherd and a father."

"That's an expression that condenses his spirituality," he said.

Oder said throughout his life, John Paul II had a "deep desire" to be in contact with people through their everyday struggles.

"We know that he desired to be deeply connected to people and their life of faith because this nurtured who he was," Oder said.

Oder also remembered John Paul's own personal struggles -- losing his mother, a brother and his father at a young age and then living in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

In the end, Oder said, John Paul wished "to be able to feel with the heart of the people, which is the heart of the church."

The group also fielded a question about the role of the canonization of popes in the wider church and what kind of model of life John XXIII and John Paul II give to laypeople.

Oder said John Paul II gives the example of a man who grew in holiness and spirituality throughout his life, from being an actor to a seminarian to a priest to a bishop to a cardinal and, eventually, the pope.

Lombardi then clarified that saints are "not just a model for us to follow, but intercessors who mediate the encounter between God's people and God."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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