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Casting a shadow over John Paul II

Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski next to Pope John Paul II in October 1980 (Source: Gov.pl / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cardinal_Wyszynski_with_Pope_John_Paul_II.jpg / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/pl/deed.en)

The book “Maxima culpa. John Paul II knew”, written by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, has been the subject of intense media discussions for several days. It is presented as completely groundbreaking in terms of the moral assessment of the entire pontificate of the Polish Pope. In reality, it is rather a fastidious thick-stranded narrative intended to cast a shadow over John Paul II without sufficient evidence.

Tomasz Rowiński

From the words of the author of the journalistic investigation, the results of which will be published any day by Agora Publishing House, there are at least two untenable theses to which “Maxima culpa” aims to convince the reader. The first is that since John Paul II encountered cases of priests going as far as sexual predation during his episcopal ministry, this means that he was also well aware of the scale of the problem of sexual violence in the universal Church when he was pope. And that he must have had sufficient knowledge of specific cases to act, such as the story of Legion of Christ founder Maciel Degollado or the now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. If he knew, he knew. That is all.

The second storyline, which Ekke Overbeek aims to tell us, is well-known and worn out to the core. In fact, it has been falsified many times – that John Paul II did nothing about the problem of sexual predation in the Church.

UNUSUAL LOGIC

It must be admitted that the logic of the Dutch journalist’s argument is unusual, and in a similar vein he was echoed last week by Newsweek, which, under the leadership of Tomasz Sekielski, increasingly resembles the anticlerical “Facts and Myths,” “Facts after Myths,” or “No.”1 Overbeek, in an interview published on Newsweek, presents yet another bizarre opinion. According to him, those who defend John Paul II and believe that he did not have enough knowledge in the case of some of the most notorious sexual predators in the Church, also believe that John Paul II had no knowledge of the problem at all. And consequently, since four cases of priests whose predation Archbishop Karol Wojtyla had to deal with while he was still in Krakow have now been described in “Maxima culpa,” it means that he knew about other cases as well. “Which makes him responsible for all cases of molestation during his pontificate and even afterwards, because it is well known that changing the course of the Church is like changing the course of an oil tanker. It’s a long process,” – Overbeek states.

There is a grain of truth in the tanker metaphor, but, as you can see, its application can already be selective. According to Overbeek, one “stop” command by John Paul II would be enough for the tanker to halt in a second, and the problems would disappear. On another note, painting such a picture of John Paul II’s defenders is nothing more than creating an easy target for those against.

Overbeek seems to think that since Bishop Wojtyla met four pedophile priests, that means John Paul II could not have been surprised by the peculiar explosion of sex scandals in the United States. “The [Degollado and McCarrick] scandals coincide with the end of the pontificate, the late 1990s, so John Paul II’s defenders have so far been able to repeat that he was already weak and sick when he found out, and there was nothing he could do. This may have sounded unconvincing, since all indications spoke of his ignorance, but such a narrative could be maintained. And here’s where the narrative suffers a ‘crash.’” But actually what “crash”? Other than repeating insinuations concerning the cases of Degollado and McCarrick, which were discredited by journalistic investigations, we learn nothing new.

In the case of Degollado, we have one long-standing and thorough journalistic investigation by Valentina Alazraki, who believes that John Paul II did not know about what was going on around the Legionaries of Christ. McCarrick’s case is even more bitter. Overbeek says that, “the American bishops begged him [John Paul II – Ed.] for permission to fight this evil.” The problem is that if it hadn’t been for the positive feedback the apostolic nuncio in the United States had collected from the American bishops about McCarrick, the latter probably wouldn’t have been promoted. It was John Paul II who ordered the investigation after receiving a warning from Cardinal John O’Connor. Overbeek, in an interview with Newsweek, also suggests that John Paul II only responded to the scandals in 2001, while subsequent responses had already been taking place since the 1980s.

WRONG ADDRESSEE OF ALLEGATIONS

Doubts must be raised not only about Overbeek’s broader narrative, but also about the specific cases of priests whose cases the journalist treats as an indictment of John Paul II. However, the title statement itself – “John Paul II knew” – adds nothing to the case. It is only meant to suggest to the reader the ultimate destruction of the image of John Paul II as a positive figure in the history of the Church and the world. It is no revelation that, as bishop, Wojtyla also had to deal with the immoral behavior of priests.

Pope John Paul II at old Yankee Stadium, New York City, in October 1979 (Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/ Author: Thomas J. O’Halloran, photographer, U.S. News & World Report magazine)

The impression that Overbeek continues to operate with understatement and shadow accompanies, for example, his description of the story of Father Kazimierz Lenart, whom Wojtyla allegedly allowed to be ordained despite the fact that there were psychosexual problems with him already in the seminary. According to Overbeek, various sources say that Fr. Lenart was said to have depraved girls in his first parishes. By 1976, Wojtyla had transferred Fr. Lenart six times. However, one has to ask whether the transfers had to do with the fact that the priest continued his immoral behavior, or whether it was more a case of him being blackmailed by the Security Services2. The cases of priests – cited, by the way, by Overbeek – in which one can see Wojtyla’s swift response to the offenses, at least makes one wonder about the complexity of Fr. Lenart’s situation.

Rev. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski wrote the following about this priest in his book “Priests in the Face of the Security Services”: “After his ordination in 1965, he was sent to Rajcza in the Żywiec region. Here, in 1968, the Security Services attempted to recruit him, using a motorcycle accident caused by the clergyman as a pretext […]. However, despite the accumulation of evidence that could have been used in blackmail, neither in Rajcza nor in subsequent parishes did the SB succeed in persuading Father Lenart to cooperate.”

The context for Fr. Lenart’s case may be the case of Fr. Joseph Loranc, who, according to Overbeek, committed oral rape on girls and was immediately suspended by Wojtyla. Loranc confessed before his act before his bishop, and there is no indication that Wojtyla reacted inappropriately. The case is not new, by the way. In early December 2022, journalists of Rzeczpospolita newspaper wrote about it in the article “Wojtyla to pedophile priest: Every crime should be punished.” “From the archival materials we have accessed, it appears that in his case Cardinal Wojtyla made instant decisions in accordance with the Code of Canon Law (CCL). And although he later gradually rescinded the ecclesiastical penalties imposed on him and showed him far-reaching mercy, he remained vigilant,” wrote Tomasz Krzyzak and Piotr Litka.

After serving his prison sentence, Father Loranc never returned to work with children. It is worth adding on this occasion that the vague wording about “transferring priests” – suggesting Wojtyla’s irresponsible shuffling of predators between parishes – often meant in practice a kind of forced seclusion. This is certainly true of monasteries such as the Camaldolese Bielany, Cistercian Mogiła, and Benedictine Tyniec.

Likewise, by the way, Krakow bishops Wojtyla and Pietraszko behaved in an appropriate manner towards the notorious sex predator Fr. Eugeniusz Surgent. The duo of Krzyzak and Litka described the case in a widely reported text, “Church peregrinations of a sexual predator,” in November 2022, published in Rzeczpospolita. “It is difficult to see omissions or serious mistakes in the actions of the Krakow hierarchy. After receiving news that a clergyman had abused children, he was summoned to the curia. Bishop Jan Pietraszko did not believe his assurances of innocence. Initially he gave permission for a leave of absence, although it cannot be ruled out that behind the order to ‘leave’ was a temporary suspension. Then, on the other hand – after the priest spoke again with Bishop Pietraszko and Cardinal Wojtyla – there was an instant dismissal from the diocese and a ban on appearing in Kiczora,” where Fr. Surgent was then living.

Krzyzak and Litka make clear that it was not Wojtyla – as Overbeek suggests – who was responsible for Fr. Surgent’s continued “peregrination” and pastoral work in the Koszalin-Pelplin diocese. “The decision to allow Surgent to work in another diocese was made outside of Cardinal Wojtyla, and had to be made jointly by Bishop Marian Rechowicz (from 1974 administrator of the archdiocese of Lubaczow) and Bishop Ignacy Jez – from 1972 Ordinary of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. The former had to give permission for a clergyman subordinate to him to move officially to another diocese (so-called excardination), while the latter had to agree to accept the priest,” the Rzeczpospilita text reads. Overbeek, however, tries to implicate Wojtyla as the one who would be responsible for the lack of a church trial. Except that it was not Wojtyla who was Surgent’s bishop. It is worth recalling on this occasion that “the Code of Canon Law in force at the time allowed for the withholding of ecclesiastical punishment in a situation where the guilty party had already been sufficiently punished by the secular authority.” – Krzyzak and Litka mention this. Why Bishops Rechowicz and Jeż did not end Surgent’s pastoral career is a legitimate question, but one which should not be addressed to Wojtyla.

Could the archives of the Krakow archdiocese tell us more about the case? Perhaps. However, the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy in Poland toward an honest, historical reworking of the problem of sexual predation among the clergy is as deficient as that of the hierarchy toward the issue of the clergy’s collaboration with the Communist security apparatus. One has to agree in this matter with Fr. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, who has argued for years that if the Church conducted a vetting process within its ranks, many sexual issues would already be out in the open or defused, since the two problems often go hand in hand.

In addition, suggesting that before Fr. Surgent’s crimes were revealed, Wojtyla behaved inappropriately – he knew something but did not say it – today does not hold water. One earlier report is known to have been made by the student’s mother, who informed the Krakow bishops of the priest’s misbehavior. In turn, those bishops referred the matter to Bishop Jan Nowicki, the Ordinary of Lubaczow, who was Surgent’s superior. In accordance with the provisions of the Code of Canon Law binding at the time, Fr. Surgent was rebuked in writing via letter by Nowicki and showed remorse. Only from today’s perspective can it be concluded that Surgent was simply a notorious liar who also tried to deceive the communist law enforcement units. It is likely that his repentance shown to his clerical superiors was rather convincing. Certainly, his unusual canonical situation – he was ordained in Krakow, but incarnated in Lubaczow – facilitated his maneuvers.

6/7/1982 President meeting with Pope John Paul II during visit to the Papal Library Vatican Pontifical Palace (Source: Reagan White House Photographs/ Public Domain)

From today’s perspective, when the mechanisms of sexual crime have been well worked out, it is easy to recognize the inadequacies of the church system at the time. Arguably, it too easily assumed the possibility of converting sexual predators, was reluctant to resort to the most severe ecclesiastical punishments, such as removal from the clerical state, and did not pay enough attention to the fate of the victimized. Except that this is not, as I understand it, Ekke Overbeek’s accusation. The journalist does not focus on the weakness of the system, but creates a false picture of Wojtyla’s personal leniency towards sexual crimes, which Cardinal Adam Sapieha allegedly instilled in him. In turn, Sapieha, on the basis of one testimony of a degenerate priest who had a motive to take revenge on the metropolitan, is portrayed in the book as a sexual deviant. However, these revelations too, like the narrative concerning Wojtyla, look heavily fastidious, as Overbeek himself expresses doubt that the testimony of Fr. Anatoly Boczek can be taken credibly.

WEAK GROUNDS FOR ALLEGATIONS

Yes, it should be added that a more credible testimony of Cardinal Sapieha’s misconduct was presented by Prof. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, and this testimony was published by Artur Sporniak in Tygodnik Powszechny. The testimony was extracted from Father Andrzej Mistat, one of the victims of the so-called trial of the Krakow curia, in which Mistat was accused of spying. The problem with this testimony is that it was preceded by brutal interrogations. Indeed, torture was used during the investigation preceding the Krakow curia trial. Father Mistat also gave the names of other priests who were alleged to have witnessed Cardinal Sapieha’s immoral behavior. This matter should probably await a thorough historical investigation, such as by an independent church commission composed in particular of professional historians. Otherwise, in the public space, unverified rumors will function as truth concealed by the Church.

Summing up the threads, one should rather agree with the opinion of Jesuit Fr. Jacek Prusak, who described the hypothesis of Cardinal Sapieha’s bad influence on Fr. Wojtyla as “dubious psychological profiling.” Besides, the very foundations of this alleged psychological profile turn out to be very weak – Wojtyla can hardly be accused of mishandling predators in cassocks. He simply followed the procedures that were prescribed in his time for such situations and that were considered appropriate. His personal pastoral relationships were always beyond reproach, and he devoted many years of his life to the intellectual work of describing the proper rules of sexual relations. Also, the accusations leveled against Cardinal Adam Sapieha cannot be taken as fact without a critical analysis of the sources, and, undoubtedly, without a wider search. However, this subject matter requires separate analysis.

1 References to former and current Polish magazines focusing on promoting anticlerical anti-Christian ideology

2 The Security Services (SB) were in fact the secret police in the communist regime of the Polish People’s Republic. It initially operated under the name Department of Security (1945-1954) and was then reorganized into Secret Services which formally operated until 1990.

This article was published in March 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.