KRAKÓW, Poland – Nearly 1500 academics in Poland have written an appeal against “slandering and rejecting John Paul II” after the publication of the McCarrick report by the Vatican on November 10.

The report documented the rise of disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was laicized by Pope Francis in 2019 after he was credibly accused of abusing minors, after rumors had for decades swirled around both the United States and the Vatican about his sexual misconduct with seminarians.

John Paul played a significant role in McCarrick’s rise, appointing him Bishop of Metuchen, Archbishop of Newark, and Archbishop of Washington before creating him a cardinal in 2001.

“We appeal to all people of goodwill for reflection. John Paul II, as every other person, deserves to be discussed with honesty,” said the letter by the group of academics. “By slandering and rejecting John Paul II we not only do harm to himself, but also to ourselves.”

Among the signatories were Krzysztof Zanussi, and award-winning director and teacher to a generation of filmmakers; Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former Minister of Foreign Affairs; and Hanna Suchocka, who served as Polish ambassador to the Holy See from 2001-2013.

“Unsupported attacks on the memory of John Paul II are motivated by a preconceived thesis, which we view with sadness and deep disturbance,” the appeal reads.

Suchocka told Polish Press Agency that “John Paul II appointed McCarrick. This is undeniable,” but “to state that he knew about McCarrick’s actions and even with that knowledge appointed him is not true and is not the finding of the report.”

“John Paul II was resolving problems unequivocally and in accordance to his knowledge. He never avoided action or covered up,” added.

While the McCarrick report clearly showed John Paul obtained a letter from Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, warning about “sound reasons for believing that rumors and allegations about the past might surface (…) with the possibility of accompanying grave scandal and widespread adverse publicity.”

The report states the John Paul didn’t ignore the case, but asked his most trusted advisors for an investigation into the matter. The report also shows there was no direct accusation from a victim until 2017, when a canonical investigation was started.

“John Paul II was fighting clerical sexual abuse and never protected it,” a group called Środowisko [The Pope’s Environment] – people whom the pontiff himself called his family – wrote in their statement following the report.

“To blame Pope John Paul II for lack of action towards protecting the children is evidence of ignorance or bad will of the circles spreading them,” the members wrote.

Danuta Rybicka is one of the most senior members of Środowisko, being friends with then-Father Karol Wojtyła from 1951, when she was a 20 year old student.

“He was our everything,” she told Crux. “A father, a friend, an authority to follow.”

Rybicka was the one who started using the pseudonym “Wujek” [Uncle] to protect their pastor and the youth when they were hiking and kayaking with the priest – activities that were forbidden to groups including clergy by the Communist regime ruling Poland at the time.

“I fought against Hitler during World War II. I fought Stalin after the war. I survived the martial law in Poland in the 80’s,” Rybicka said, “but I have never felt so helpless when the dearest man to me is attacked unfairly by some environments.”

“I don’t have physical strength any more to defend pope John Paul II – the only thing I can do now, is to pray that truth wins,” she said.

Stephen White, the Executive Director of The Catholic Project at Catholic University of America says that calls for de-canonizing John Paul II or suppressing his cult “are not serious proposals and they come mostly from people or groups with an ideological axe to grind.”

Although some groups now say John Paul II was made a saint too quickly – he was beatified in 2011, just six years after his death, and canonized less than three years later – White disagrees.

“The question then is: Too quickly for what? It makes at least as much sense to suppose that he was canonized ‘just in time’ – that what the Church needs now is an example of a saint who was both manifestly holy and manifestly imperfect.”

The Catholic Project has been looking into different aspects of the clerical abuse crisis, recently launching an in-depth podcast on the issue called “Crisis.”

“It is crucial to remember that most of the events in the McCarrick Report – at least those pertaining to his promotion and elevation to the college of cardinals – happened 20-30 years ago,” White said, noting it offers a glimpse into the workings of a Church before the American abuse crisis exploded in 2002. This led to the landmark Dallas Charter on child protection the same year. Most recently, Pope Francis promulgated Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the 2019 Vatican law on combatting clerical abuse.

“Many of the structural reforms that would have helped prevent McCarrick’s rise have already been put into place. More importantly, there has been a cultural shift within the Church,” White told Crux.

“This is important, because even the best protocols and procedures will prove ineffective without an ecclesial culture hostile to abuse and cover up. The Church, at least in the U.S., still has work to do in this regard, but is much closer to that goal than we were during the era when Theodore McCarrick was climbing the ecclesial ladder,” he said.

White stressed that for many the story of the report is “unsatisfying – because we want someone to blame,” but the document “leaves the reader with a clear sense that the overwhelming share of moral responsibility for this debacle lies with Theodore McCarrick himself.”

“The consequences of his sin touch millions of lives–from his first victims more than 50 years ago, right up to us in the Church today who are still dealing with the fallout from his predations,” he said.

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina