VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II's biographer and longtime spokesman sought Friday to defend his record on sex abuse against evidence that he didn't grasp the scale of the scandal until very late in his papacy.
John Paul's record and his support for the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, a notorious pedophile, have come under fresh scrutiny in the run-up to the pontiff's canonization Sunday, the fastest in modern times.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls and official biographer George Weigel pointed to John Paul's decision in April 2002 -- the year the scandal exploded publicly in the U.S. -- to summon U.S. cardinals to Rome as evidence he acted decisively once he learned about the problem.
"I think there was an information gap between the United States and the Holy See in the first months of 2002 so that the pope was not living this crisis in real time as we were in the USA," Weigel told a Vatican news conference. "Once he became fully informed in April of that year, he acted decisively to deal with these problems."
Yet U.S. bishops had been petitioning the Holy See for faster ways to defrock pedophile priests since the late 1980s. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had asked the Vatican legal office for ways to accelerate the process for the universal church in 1988 because he too was seeing cases piling up.
Ratzinger, who for a quarter century met regularly with John Paul as his chief doctrine czar, finally wrested control of all abuse cases in 2001, making sure his office reviewed them individually to tell bishops how to proceed.
Navarro-Valls said John Paul found it difficult to accept that priests might abuse children because of the "purity of his thought." But he said he eventually did accept it.
Navarro-Valls also denied that John Paul had covered up for the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, whom the Polish pope had held up as a model for the faithful.
Maciel's victims have accused John Paul and his top advisers of ignoring decades of credible accusations, appreciating instead the orthodoxy of his priests and Maciel's ability to bring in vocations and donations to the church.
Ever since the 1940s, the Vatican's Congregation for Religious had in its files documents from Mexican and Spanish bishops, Vatican investigators and ordinary Legion priests detailing Maciel's drug abuse, sexual abuse, financial improprieties and questionable spiritual life.
In 1979 a U.S. bishop sent the Congregation for Religious a bombshell set of documents detailing the 20 Legion priests and seminarians who had been sexually abused by Maciel. In 1998, a half dozen of them filed a canonical case with Ratzinger's office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accusing him of abuse.
The case languished for years as Maciel's protectors in the Vatican hierarchy blocked the investigation. The probe finally opened in 2004 and ended a year after Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. Maciel was convicted and sanctioned in 2006 to a lifetime of penance and prayer.
Defending John Paul, Navarro-Valls noted that the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor began taking testimony from Maciel's victims in the United States while John Paul was still alive.
Indeed, Monsignor Charles Scicluna was in New York City taking testimony from Juan Vaca, a former Legion superior, on April 2, 2005, the day John Paul died.