During his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican’s associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution of Galileo.
He apologized so often, in fact, that an Italian journalist compiled a book of more than 90 papal statements of contrition.
Yet the pope never apologized for the most shocking behavior that came to light on his watch: sexual abuse of children by priests and the church’s attempts to hush it up. To some alleged victims, that is a puzzling omission and a deep stain on his legacy.
“I would hate to see all the good works this pope has done over his lifetime be overshadowed by this scandal. But that’s what may happen,” said Gary M. Bergeron, of Lowell, Mass., who says he was molested in the 1970s by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a priest accused of abusing more than a dozen altar boys.
John Paul’s defenders contend that sexual misconduct by priests is a worldwide problem that began before he became pope in 1978. They say that once it came to light, he reacted decisively. Summoning America’s cardinals to the Vatican in April 2002, he declared that “there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
Those words became the basis for the “zero-tolerance” policy adopted two months later by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Over the following year, hundreds of priests resigned, retired or were suspended as the bishops pledged to remove any offending priests.
But victims’ advocates argue that John Paul could have done more, and they hope his successor will set a new tone, beginning with a straightforward apology to victims.
“I would say there’s a significant amount of responsibility in the lap of the papacy for the sexual-abuse crisis, not only in the United States but around the world,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former Air Force chaplain who has counseled many sex-abuse victims.
As a young canon lawyer in the mid-1980s, Doyle worked at the Vatican Embassy in Washington during the first major sexual-abuse scandal in the U.S. church, which centered on a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe.
“I can tell you for certain that it reached the Vatican early in 1985, because I was working at the Vatican Embassy and I know that communications about the Gauthe case were … seen by the pope,” Doyle said.
But John Paul did not speak publicly about sexual abuse by priests until eight years later, after a furor over another pedophile priest, James Porter, who had more than 100 alleged victims in Fall River, Mass.
Addressing a group of visiting U.S. bishops in Rome in 1993, the pope said he shared their “sadness and disappointment when those entrusted with the ministry fail in their commitment, becoming a cause of public scandal.” Much of his message, however, was an attack on “sensationalism” in the news media, leaving the strong impression that he believed the sex-abuse problem was exaggerated in America.
Nevertheless, at the request of U.S. bishops, the pope in 1994 changed church law in the United States to lengthen the statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse from five to 10 years from the victim’s 18th birthday.
In 2002, a fresh scandal erupted when a Boston judge released church documents showing that Cardinal Bernard Law and his assistant bishops had secretly shuffled abusers from parish to parish. In response, John Paul amended canon law again by accepting the bishops’ zero-tolerance policy, though only after Vatican officials insisted on changes to protect the due-process rights of accused priests. Law later resigned under pressure.
The pontiff condemned sexual abuse more directly and forcefully in his address to U.S. cardinals in April 2002, when he said it was “rightly considered a crime by society” as well as “an appalling sin in the eyes of God.”
“To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern,” he added. It was the closest he came to an apology.