Pope John Paul II’s handling of clerical sexual abuse continued to be a cause of controversy in Rome just 48 hours before his canonisation was due to take place.
In response to a question on Pope John Paul II’s handling of the abuse question at a Vatican briefing on Friday, George Weigel, the late Pope’s biographer, stressed that John Paul II “was a great reformer of the Catholic priesthood” which was “in its worst condition since the sixteenth century.”
He admitted there had been an "information gap" between the United States and the Holy See in 2002 so that the Pope was "living this crisis in real time as we were in the U.S."
Weigel added: "But once he became fully informed in April of that year, he acted decisively to deal with those problems," he said.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman during the time of Pope John Paul II, said at first the Polish Pope did not understand the "cancer" of clerical sexual abuse.
Speaking at the same briefing, Dr Navarro-Valls stressed, however, that addressing the clerical sexual abuse scandal started "very clearly" under John Paul II.
Critics say that the Pope should have acted against Fr Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ who was found to have been a serial abuser. John Paul II had praised Maciel and promoted the Legionaries during his time as Pope.
The group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) believe that the late Pope must have known about the allegations against Maciel, and they have held a protest with abuse victims on the roof of a hotel which overlooks St Peter’s basilica this morning, which they will repeat tonight.
Earlier this week Mgr Slawomir Oder, the postulator of John Paul II’s cause, said an investigation had been carried out and found “there was no personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”
Dr Navarro Valls pointed out that the Pope was dying during the investigation into Maciel in 2005 and was not informed of the results. However, substantial allegations of abuse against Maciel had been made back in the 1990s.
At the Vatican briefing for media this morning, Mr Weigel praised Pope Francis as “courageous and wise” for combining the canonisations of John Paul II and John XXIII. Contradicting critics who say the two late popes represent opposing wings of the Church, Mr Weigel claimed that they complemented each other when it came to the reforming council instigated by John XXIII in the 1960s.
“These two men who seem on the surface such different personalities are in fact two bookends of the Second Vatican Council,” Mr Weigel said. The author added that John Paul II “recovered” the hope of John XXIII that Vatican II would be a “new Pentecost.”
Thousands of pilgrims, many of them from Poland, poured into St Peter’s Square today, as Rome prepared for Sunday’s ceremony which will see the canonisations of the popes John Paul II and John XXIII.
The city’s mayor, Ignazio Marino has estimated that up to three million people will come over the weekend. “The numbers [of visitors] will be enormous,” he said. “The event is very important both spiritually and economically.”
Above: Shopping for postcards in St Peter's Square. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring