John Paul II sainthood a delicate issue for Mexicans

Posted at 04/26/2014 2:39 PM | Updated as of 04/27/2014 11:44 AM

MEXICO CITY - Many Mexicans have mixed emotions about seeing the late pope John Paul II become a saint: they loved the man but feel he covered up sexual abuses by priests.

In the Latin American country with the most Catholics after Brazil, most Mexicans "will welcome the canonization, but not all of them, because his pontificate had a dark side," said sociologist Bernardo Barranco, who specializes in religious issues.

He added: "I do not think everyone will forgive him for having covered up" the pedophilia that went on to rock the church with scandal in recent years.

In his first overseas trip in 1979, John Paul visited Mexico, where 80 percent of the population of 118 million is Catholic.

Upon his arrival, the pontiff kissed the ground and thus began very warm ties with the people of Mexico, who turned out to greet the pope by the tens of thousands during each of his five visits to this country.

John Paul praised Mexicans as "always faithful" and they would serenade him at night with a song called "Amigo," or friend.

The Legion of Christ

But in 1997, ex-members of an ultra-conservative Catholic congregation called the Legion of Christ accused its Mexican founder Marcial Maciel of sexual abuse.

They did so in a letter to John Paul, and a formal complaint was filed with the Vatican a year later.

The ex-congregation members sent "a kilo and a half of documents, most of them notarized," said Jose Barba, one of the young seminarians who said he suffered abuse at the hands of Maciel and says he has received no response from the Vatican despite having revealed his case to senior church officials.

Barba, now 75, said the canonization is the "epitome of the cover up" as it reflects "an enormous desire to put the issue to rest and forget about Maciel."

Maciel, a priest who died in 2008 at the age of 87, was accused of abusing several seminarians. At the same time he led a double life, having relationships with two women and fathering several children, who also said they had been abused by him.

After years of denials by the church hierarchy, the Vatican launched a probe and in 2004 it forced Maciel out as leader of the Legion of Christ. In 2006 he was defrocked altogether and told to retire to a life of prayer and penitence.

The Legionaries of Christ, who in 2010 asked for forgiveness from the children of Maciel, had been praised by John Paul for recruiting many seminarians at a time when the church struggled mightily to come up with new priests. The Legion had loads of money, financing religious campaigns and opening universities.

Pope unaware

In February, the United Nations made an unexpected accusation against the Vatican, saying it had violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to the sexual abuse charges.

The UN said the Vatican had not done all it could to address the problem, mainly because the priests accused of wrongdoing were not punished or put on trial.

"This monster (Maciel) was protected by John Paul II, and this is something that hurts not just many Mexicans but also the church itself," said Barranco.

"We are not saying he should not be canonized, but rather that time should be taken to investigate thoroughly" so as to see if there was a cover up, said Barba

"The church wants people to think that if he is a saint, then that's it. We say 'no,'" he added.

But Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who postulated John Paul to become a saint, said Tuesday that "John Paul II was not aware" of any abuse. "An investigation of the issue was done and we reached that conclusion," Oder said.

Barba says he is convinced that "the Pope knew," but did not want to say anything so as not to hurt the church.

"How on Earth would he have said Marcial Maciel was guilty of this, after having held him up as a model for youths?"

John Paul's canonization Sunday at the Vatican is being carried out in record time, although it followed all the steps required by the church, including the conclusion that he was involved in two miracles.

Benedict XVI, who was pope from 2005 to 2013, was the first to apologize for the priest sex abuse scandal and proposed a new policy of zero tolerance.

His successor, Pope Francis, said pedophilia within the church is a "disgrace." In December he formed a commission to investigate the alleged crimes, keep any such thing from happening again and help victims.

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