It was virtually inevitable that the media firestorm over Benedict XVI’s handling of sexually abusive clerics — even if the insinuations against the Pope were unsubstantiated and unfair — would spill backwards toward the late John Paul II. It was also inevitable that the point of attack would be John Paul’s endorsement of the work of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious congregation that enjoyed considerable papal favor during John Paul’s pontificate.
Since John Paul II died, it has become clear that Maciel led a double-life of moral dissolution for decades, fathering out-of-wedlock children, sexually abusing seminarians, and violating the sacrament of penance. The abuse charges were known during John Paul’s time, but the Pope did not believe them; he may have thought them the by-product of tawdry Mexican politics (politics politics and ecclesiastical politics). In the last months of John Paul’s life, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger re-opened an investigation into Maciel’s affairs; in 2006 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “invited” Maciel, no longer head of the Legionaries, to a “reserved life of prayer and penance” with no public ministry. This amounted to ecclesiastical house arrest; Maciel died in 2008.
When the extraordinary range of Maciel’s perfidies became known, Benedict XVI ordered an apostolic visitation of the Legionaries, which has been completed. Strong measures, one hopes, will now be taken to address Maciel’s sins and crimes, to deal with anyone in the Legion who may have aided him in his double-life, and to save the good that can be saved from the Legion and its lay affiliate organization, Regnum Christi. That salvage job will require a definitive break with the past, and with the Maciel mythology that was a large part of his power.
Maciel was well-known for spreading money all over Rome, as Jason Berry has recently written in the National Catholic Reporter. Some Catholics may find it shocking that envelopes of cash were left in the papal apartment. But the fact is that a great many people give money to the pope: visiting bishops, heads of religious orders, Catholic organizations, etc. As John Paul died with virtually no worldly goods, no plausible charge can be made that he personally benefited from Maciel’s “generosity;” and as these things work, the money was likely given to the late Pope’s secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now cardinal archbishop of Cracow. Dziwisz often gave cash to poor bishops and others he sensed were in financial need; perhaps some of Maciel’s money went in this direction. A good novelist might even create a scenario in which Dziwisz used money from Maciel and others to fund underground Solidarity clandestinely during the martial law period in Poland in the early 1980s.
The immediate temptation, to which Ross Douthat unhappily succumbed in the April 12 New York Times, is to conclude that these monetary gifts “explain” John Paul II’s support for the Legionaries of Christ and for Maciel. Prudent analysts will resist that temptation. John Paul and Dziwisz were badly deceived by Maciel. So were many other people, including hundreds of high-ranking churchmen, his own religious community, a lot of very wealthy and presumably astute Mexicans and Americans – in fact, people all over the world. Falling prey to this deception constituted a failure in the late pope’s governance, objectively. But this failure was neither willful (he knew something was awry and did nothing about it), nor venal (he was “bought”), nor malicious (he knew what was going on, and didn’t care), and thus doesn’t call into question John Paul II’s heroic virtue. Nobody ever “bought” Karol Wojtyla with money, in which he had zero interest since his days as a manual laborer in Nazi-occupied Cracow.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger politely and firmly declined Maciel’s gifts; whatever effect Maciel’s money may have had on others in the Roman Curia ought to be investigated as the apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ is brought to a conclusion. Having spent more than two decades studying the life of John Paul II, however, it seems to me utterly implausible that the late pope’s failure to read Marcial Maciel correctly had anything to do with money.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.