Journalists contradict allegations of ‘cover up’ against John Paul II before he was pope

Pope John Paul II circa 1992 Credit   LOsservatore Romano CNA 5 21 15 St. John Paul II, circa 1992. | L'Osservatore Romano.

Journalists investigating secular and Catholic Church sources in Poland have called into question allegations by a Dutch writer that St. John Paul II “covered up” sexual abuse while still a bishop in Poland.

On Dec. 2, Ekke Overbeek, a journalist from the Netherlands living in Poland, said he had found “concrete cases of priests abusing children in the Archdiocese of Krakow, where the future pope was archbishop. The future pope knew about it and transferred them anyway, which led to new victims.”

Overbeek referred to the case of the priest Eugeniusz Surgent and “many others” whom Karol Wojtyla allegedly “covered up.”

The Dutch publication NOS, in which Overbeek’s statements appeared, reported the journalist spent three years combing “Polish archives.”

“Almost all documents collected directly about Wojtyla have been destroyed. However, in other surviving documents, he is mentioned very often. And if you put them all together, they are pieces of a puzzle that give a picture of how he dealt with it,” the writer stated, without saying which archives he was referring to.

Polish journalists Tomasz Krzyżak and Piotr Litka of Rzeczpospolita published an investigation that countered Overbeek’s accusations, stating St. John Paul II did not cover up any abuse and consistently acted against such cases during his time as archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978.

The reporters point out that the priest in question, Surgent, was not from the Archdiocese of Krakow but from the Diocese of Lubaczów.

As archbishop of Krakow, the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla made several decisions concerning Surgent, they explained, “within his competencies, leaving the final word on possible sanctioning of the priest to his ordinary, the bishop of Lubaczów.”

The journalists added that “the then archbishop of Krakow could not do anything about the fact that Surgent was working in two other dioceses.”

The Polish reporters also referred to another incident that illustrated how Cardinal Wojtyla at the time dealt with abuse, namely the case of priest Józef Loranc, who was accused of sexually abusing young girls.

“The absence of punitive measures by the ecclesiastical court does not cancel the crime and does not undo the guilt,” Cardinal Wojtyla wrote in a 1971 letter to Loranc after he was released from prison.

For Krzyżak and Litka, “this behavior” of the later Pope John Paul II “differs considerably from the practice of leniency toward those who had committed such crimes, which was common at the time.”

In the case of Loranc, a priest of the Archdiocese of Krakow until his death in 1992, “Cardinal Wojtyla made immediate decisions in accordance with canon law. And while he gradually lifted canonical penalties and showed great mercy, he remained ever vigilant,” the journalists wrote.

When Cardinal Wojtyla learned of the case in 1970, his decision came just days after learning of the accusations against Loranc.

In a letter, the future Pope John Paul II stated that the accused priest was “suspended” and “could not exercise any priestly function” and would have to “live in the monastery for a certain period of time and make a retreat and receive help.”

The journalists said that Wojtyla “made all the necessary decisions at that moment: the quick removal of the priest from the parish, the suspension until the matter was resolved, and the obligation to live in a monastery,” where civil authorities then arrested him.

The case did not reach the Vatican, they said, because the provision directing what is now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — to deal with abuse cases was not issued until 2001. 

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Although he was eventually allowed to celebrate Mass again, Loran could not return to the “canonical mission of catechesis of children and youth” or to the ministry of the confessional.

The Polish Bishops’ Conference, in a statement published Nov. 14, spoke of “increasingly hearing questions about John Paul II’s attitude toward the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people by the clergy and about his response to such crimes during his pontificate.” 

“It has been increasingly alleged that the pope did not deal adequately with such acts and did little to address the problem, or even covered it up,” the statement continued.

The bishops decried these as a “media assault” on St. John Paul II and his pontificate. The target of such criticisms was “his teaching expressed, for example, in encyclicals such as Redemptor hominis or Veritatis splendor, as well as in his theology of the body, which does not correspond to contemporary ideologies promoting hedonism, relativism, and moral nihilism.”

The statement was not the first time Polish Catholic leaders responded to allegations against St. John Paul II.

In December 2020, following criticism of the Polish pope in the wake of the McCarrick report, 1,700 professors at Polish universities and research institutes signed an appeal defending St. John Paul II.

The signatories included Hanna Suchocka, Poland’s first female prime minister; former foreign minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld; physicists Andrzej Staruszkiewicz and Krzysztof Meissner; and film director Krzysztof Zanussi.

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The professors’ appeal followed an intervention by Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. In a Dec. 7, 2020, statement, Gądecki deplored what he called “unprecedented attacks” on St. John Paul II. He insisted that the pope’s “highest priority” was combating clerical abuse and protecting young people.