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McCarrick report shifts views of Pope John Paul II in a polarized Catholic Church

Detailing how Pope John Paul II ignored accusations against McCarrick to make him Archbishop of Washington and elevate him to cardinal, the report raises questions about the legacy of Poland's first Catholic pontiff.

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2001 file photo, U.S. Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., shakes hands with Pope John Paul II during the General Audience with the newly appointed cardinals in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican. McCarrick was one of the three Americans on a record list of 44 new cardinals who were elevated in a ceremony at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2001. (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, File)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — For more than a week at the end of October, massive demonstrations swamped the streets of major cities in Poland as women marched against a court decision increasing abortion restrictions in the country.

The demonstrators, accusing the Roman Catholic Church of being a partner with Poland’s increasingly authoritarian conservative government, also showed their anger by disrupting Masses and invading cathedrals dressed in the red dresses and white bonnets of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Signs recalling sexual abuse by Catholic clergy also became commonplace at the demonstrations. 

The criticism, almost unimaginable just a few years ago in a country that counts itself the most Catholic nation in Europe, has been received by some as a wake-up call for the Church.

“If the Polish bishops don’t realize that Poland, like the rest of the West, is mission territory, and if they don’t call their clergy and people to live the New Evangelization, Poland in 20 years could be the new Italy: a country with a visible facade of Catholic culture and history but a rather weak faith beneath,” Catholic commentator George Weigel told Religion News Service on Friday (Nov. 13). 

RELATED: McCarrick scandal shows why popes, like John Paul, should not be canonized

Another blow to the Polish church came just days later, as the Vatican released its long-awaited report on the handling of the sexual abuse case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Detailing how Pope John Paul II failed to act on the accusations against McCarrick to make him Archbishop of Washington and elevate him to cardinal, the report raises questions about the legacy of Poland’s first Catholic pontiff, its most recent saint and a hero of its struggle to escape the influence of Communism in the 1970s and ’80s. 

Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, listens as Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl speaks at a news conference announcing Wuerl as the choice of Pope Benedict XVI to succeed McCarrick as leader of the Roman Catholic community in the nation’s capital, at the Archdiocese of Washington, on May 16, 2006. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“The legacy of John Paul II is in jeopardy now,” said Frederic Martel, journalist and author of “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a 2019 book that delved into the gay culture within the Vatican.

“Fighting Communism in Eastern Europe was a more important ideological goal than combating sexual abuse for John Paul II,” Martel added.

In addition to the McCarrick report, a Polish documentary that aired last week suggested that Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, John Paul II’s secretary, covered up numerous cases of sexual abuse in Poland and elsewhere. The McCarrick report mentions Dziwisz over 40 times.

In recent days, the fallout from the report has revived arguments that John Paul was made a saint too soon, only nine years after his death in 2005. There is no way to decanonize a saint in the Catholic Church, though feast days can be removed from the calendar.

According to the investigation, then-Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor and the Vatican envoy to the United States, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, collected the evidence and testimonies against McCarrick and sent them to Pope John Paul II between 1999 and 2001, before McCarrick became D.C.’s archbishop in 2000.

The Vatican report tries to explain John Paul’s decision-making process with documents showing that several prelates concealed information and that some of the pope’s closest advisers believed a letter from McCarrick in which he defended himself from the allegations.

John Paul had a long-standing relationship with McCarrick, the report shows, and the pope’s experience in Poland — where clergy were often personally attacked by the Communist government to undermine their authority — likely had a strong impact on his decisions.

Many who know John Paul’s history have defended him, saying that the report’s account is too stark. “Media claims notwithstanding, that situation was very, very murky,” said Weigel, adding that a lack of clear evidence and McCarrick’s lies made the allegations as O’Connor presented them “less of a bright red flag than it’s being portrayed.

“To condemn John Paul II’s decision-making in 1999-2002 by what we know about McCarrick now is ahistorical and very likely agenda-driven,” Weigel said, “and to turn a 449-page report on a sexual predator, pervert, liar and manipulator into an indictment of another man, as too many have done, is, at the very least, strange.” 

Pope John Paul II waves from the popemobile, in the company of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, before entering Sacred Heart Cathedral for a service during a visit to Newark, New Jersey, on Oct. 4, 1995. Photo by Jerry McCrea/ Newark Star-Ledger

The McCarrick report has led to finger-pointing in the already polarized Catholic community, with conservative factions moving to protect their longtime standard-bearer, John Paul, as progressives hail the document as a victory for Francis, who ordered the report that largely exculpates him from responsibility in McCarrick’s continuation as cardinal after the accusations became better-known.

“I think the question of what Pope Francis knew in specific and when did he know it remains to be answered,” Weigel said, adding that Francis should have “insisted on, and enforced, a non-public life for the retired McCarrick.”

“But it must also be said that, confronted by the evidence presented by Cardinal Dolan in 2018, Pope Francis moved swiftly and decisively against McCarrick,” he added.

Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in July 2018 and ordered him to a “life of prayer and penance” while awaiting a canonical trial.

For Martel, the Vatican report proves that the 2018 letter by former Vatican representative to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, condemning the Vatican’s handling of McCarrick and asking for Francis’ resignation, “was a lie.”

RELATED: Vatican’s McCarrick report: Three popes looked the other way on sex abuse claims

If Catholic insiders disagree on which pontiff is most to blame for McCarrick’s embarrassment of the church, they agree that the Vatican report leaves many questions unanswered.

One such question is what, exactly, the church should do to restore faith in its ability to handle, and hopefully end, the abuse crisis.

Weigel said that reforming seminaries and promoting fraternal correction among bishops is essential to combating clergy abuse. “The clerical caste system and the ‘men’s club’ mentality among bishops that facilitated McCarrick’s self-promotion and deception remains to be fully dismantled,” he said.

Martel said it’s imperative that those who played a significant role in protecting and insulating McCarrick face canonical trials. “It’s the only way to avoid the legacy of John Paul II being destroyed,” he added.

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