KRAKOW, Poland – During a high-profile summit on clerical sexual abuse that wraps up today at the Vatican, the late Pope John Paul II’s response to the scandals has been cited more than once – a surprise for many, perhaps, who thought the Church began taking the issue seriously only under Benedict XVI.
Crux, along with Polish Television TVP1, spoke to the Polish pope’s closest aide, now-Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of Krakow, on the pontiff’s approach to clerical abuse, with Dziwisz strongly defending his mentor’s legacy.
When John Paul II found out about the truth behind the accusations on sexual abuse “he was deeply horrified,” said Dziwisz, who was in the background of every picture of the pope, his shadow and, by the end, his “human cane” when John Paul II was unable to walk on his own.
“He always lived very intensely the affairs of the Church: he enjoyed the good things about the Church and felt saddened by all manifestations of evil. The news that priests and religious, whose vocation is to help people in meeting God, were the cause of so much suffering to young people and scandal for everybody, hurt him very much,” Dziwisz said.
“Don Stanislao” was Karol Wojtyła’s personal secretary for 12 years in Krakow before accompanying him to the Vatican for the 27 years of his pontificate. Of the summit taking place this week, Dziwisz told Crux: “This event stands in the line of the actions of John Paul II.”
Despite the fact that John Paul II gave Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced ex-cardinal who was recently expelled from the priesthood, all three of his episcopal assignments in the US – Metuchen, New Jersey, in 1981; Newark in 1986; and Washington, D.C. in 2000 – as well as making him a cardinal in 2001, Dziwisz also insisted that defrocking McCarrick is consistent with John Paul’s own approach.
“I see the recent decision to remove McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and from the priesthood as completely in line with the direction John Paul II designated,” Dziwisz said.
“Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II was close to those who suffer, standing in their defense. It includes those who were hurt by the people of the Church,” Dziwisz said.
John Paul’s former aide admitted it pleases him that the organizing committee of the summit quoted documents presented during his pontificate as ”an important point of reference,” and praised Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, both seen as leading reformers, for “recalling the words of John Paul II that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
Over the years, critics often accused John Paul of trying to create an “imperial papacy,” centralizing power around himself. Dziwisz, however, insisted that wasn’t the case.
“John Paul II was a man of the [Second Vatican] Council,” he said. “Collegiality for him was a basic rule in the Church. His collaborators, especially those who were leading Vatican dicasteries, had a personal contact with the pope and could always talk to him. Important matters were decided jointly at the meetings of superiors of dicasteries.”
Dziwisz also denied wielding untoward power himself, especially as John Paul aged.
“The personal secretary of the Holy Father never substituted the dicasteries of the Roman Curia,” he said.
The first abuse scandals covered intensely by the media exploded in Canada and Ireland in the ’80s and ’90s, followed by the great American storm in the early 2000s. Dziwisz admits that the Vatican at the time was only starting to discover the gravity of the issue.
“We were not aware of the whole scale of this phenomenon of sexual abuse or its global nature, as we clearly see these matters today,” the cardinal told Crux.
Nonetheless, Dziwisz said, John Paul II strove to do the right thing.
“The pope saw that the problem was not only the human drama of the victims, but also the wrong reactions of the superiors,” he said. “He saw that although there were Church laws and procedures, they were not always applied by bishops,” he said.
It was John Paul II, Dziwisz said, who imposed an obligation to report each case of clerical abuse directly to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, run by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, “in whom John Paul II had the utmost confidence.”
The move, Dziwisz said, was meant to “prevent the temptation to sweep these painful matters under the carpet.”
Asked whether there was a culture of silence in John Paul’s Vatican, Dziwisz said it didn’t come from the pope: “He was a very clear and unambiguous person. Whoever met and collaborated with him knows well that in him there was no conscious acceptance or compromise with any evil,” Dziwisz said.
“John Paul II believed that the Church needs transparency, but also responsibility in treating every human person in respect of his or her dignity,” Dziwisz said.
“He said that in our time the Church has to make every effort to be like a ‘glass house,’ and that this is the right action,” he said.
Dziwisz said John Paul had a broad view of the abuse crisis.
“He was clearly aware that the crisis affects not only the Church but also the entire society, and that it is related to the deep disorder in the area of sexual morality,” he said. “He diagnosed this problem very early in his pontificate.”
Dziwisz said John Paul’s conclusion was clear: “The only way to face this crisis and its causes is fostering a mature and responsible experience of human love and sexuality,” he said.
Dziwisz is hopeful that the rough waters of the Church now will bear fruit.
“Pope John Paul II saw evil, but never lost hope,” he said. “He looked at everything with a strong faith that God, from the greatest evil, can bring good. He believed that where sin increased, grace might flow more abundantly.”
More than once, Dziwisz recalled, John Paul said the crisis could help the Church purify herself and strengthen her in holiness.