Three Monkeys Online

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The Power and the Glory – David Yallop


Returning back to Italy, after a brief stay in Ireland, precisely in the days leading up to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, I was surrounded by Italians and Irish, young and old, all chattering about the pontiff’s demise, about his charisma, his holiness, and above all about his courage. Few could remain untouched by the images of an old man battling against Parkinson’s disease while governing an increasingly beleaguered church. For the following days the Italian media was dominated by images of ‘Papa Wojtyla’, and discussions of how long it should take before John Paul II was officially made a saint.

There were no images of Wojtyla addressing crowds from a balcony in Santiago Chile, alongside General Augusto Pinochet. There were no images of Wojtyla shaking hands with Argentina’s military junta at a time when they were ordering death squads to work throughout the country. Amidst the chants of ‘Santo Subito‘ (roughly speaking ‘Saint, immediately’) it seemed as if much of John Paul’s pontificate had somehow been forgotten. The most – or, perhaps, only – media-astute Pope had lived his pontificate in front of the cameras, and thus it was hardly surprising that public opinion of him worldwide – and not just amongst Catholics – was dominated by a handful of images. There was the young, sport-loving Pope who toured the world to greet the faithful; There was the religious leader who survived an assassination attempt (thanks, according to his judgment, to divine intervention) and went on to forgive his assassin; There was the moral leader who almost single-handedly brought down communism; and finally there was the lonely old man battling age and illness to carry out his duty.

A handful of images to summarise a pontificate that lasted over twenty-five years. Carefully cultivated and often-repeated images that have little or no place in David Yallop’s book The Power and the Glory. Yallop corrects the over-sweet portrait of Karol Wojtyla with an acerbic, angry, and at times far from charitable biography. You’d be hard put to find a harsher view, but Yallop’s book is an important opening salvo in a much-needed debate about the effects – good and bad – that John Paul II’s pontificate has had on the Roman Catholic Church.

Yallop, who has an impressive track record in investigative journalism, is perhaps best known for his controversial thesis – presented in the book In God’s Name (the key points of which are handily summed up at the end of The Power and the Glory) – that Wojtyla’s predecessor, Albino Luciani or Pope John Paul I, was murdered before he could reform various Vatican structures. His murder theory will no doubt put off many Catholics, presuming some kind of anti-Church bias. In truth, while a distinct distaste for the Catholic Church can be detected from the outset, Yallop’s investigation into Pope John Paul I’s death puts him in an excellent position to examine the opening of John Paul II’s pontificate. In particular issues relating to the handling of Vatican finances dominate the opening of the book, and colour many of the judgements thereafter. It’s an area in which Yallop is particularly convincing, not least because he is one of the few to bring the uncomfortable topic up – a quick look at the short ‘criticisms’ section on the wikipedia page on John Paul II, for example, ignores the huge banking scandal (the collapse of the Banca Ambrosiano, with debts of up to $1.3billion) which occurred during his pontificate .

Even if one discards the murder theory relating to John Paul I, only the most foolhardy could deny that both Pope John Paul I and John Paul II both had information relating to the developing scandals that would engulf Roberto Calvi’s Banca Ambrosiano and the Istituto per le Opere di Religione , otherwise known as the Vatican bank. In 1978 an official Italian report had already highlighted many irregularities in the running of Calvi’s bank, which at best should have led to huge question marks about the ability of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the head of the Vatican Bank, and one of Calvi’s main partners. While there’s no concrete evidence that Luciani intended to move Marcinkus from his position as head of the Vatican bank, one of Pope John Paul II’s first moves was the complete opposite, to reconfirm the controversial Bishop. At the same time a nervous Calvi, alongside the Grand Master of the P2 Masonic lodge Licio Gelli, both of whom had judiciously gone to South America during John Paul I’s brief pontificate returned to Italy. When Calvi was murdered in 1982, found hanging from blackfriars bridge in London, his Banca Ambrosiano had rung up debts of up to 1.3 billion dollars, helped in no small part by Marcinkus and the Vatican bank. The charitable defence would suggest that John Paul II was more interested in spiritual matters than the financial transactions of the Vatican bank. Yallop, though, is far from charitable and convincingly argues that John Paul’s confirmation of Marcinkus and other administrators in the bank was an active support of their work – work which effectively led to money laundering and fraud on a vast scale. One possible motive, as suggested in Philip Willan’s book The Last Supper, was that the financial transactions, of dubious legality, of Calvi and Marcinkus allowed for non-traceable funds to be channeled to causes like Solidarity in Poland – a cause close to the Pope’s heart.

Yallop paints the picture of a Pope convinced of his role, and aggressive in confronting those who would seek to advise his pontificate or, God forbid, question his judgement. A Pope’s Pope, as it were. In this light Yallop is scathing about both John Paul II and his Church’s handling of the child sexual abuse scandals that came to light in both America and Ireland in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His chapter ‘Beyond Belief’, which deals with the issue of the Church’s role in and response to the scandals is one of the longest and most painful of the book.

Again, if we take Wikipedia’s page on the Pontiff as a yardstick for popular opinion on his role, we see that John Paul II was criticized by some “for failing to respond quickly enough to the sex abuse crisis”. For Yallop, though, John Paul II and his Church responded quickly and determinedly to the emerging crisis, in order to hide records (written reports from various dioceses in America were ordered to be sent to the Papal Nuncio in Washington, putting them out of the jurisdiction of those investigating child abuse claims). Again, the charitable view is that John Paul II underestimated the scale of the problem and thus did little to combat it. Yallop concurs, to some extent, that John Paul II underestimated the problem – presuming that it was largely an American issue (Yallop details extensively Wojtyla’s distaste for and incomprehension at American consumer society), but outlines how a clear Vatican plan was implemented, the aim of which was to keep control of the problem firmly out of civil society. Accused priests in countless cases were transferred to different parishes, as often as not to come into contact with new potential victims. As with the financial scandals, John Paul II showed where his sympathies lay when he refused the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Law (a resignation called for by many due to his appaling mismanagement of abuse cases in the Boston Diocese), or with his long-term support for Austrian bishop Hermann Groer whom the Pope made Cardinal in 1988 – though the first of many accusations against Groer had been lodged in 1986.

Adressing Austrian Bishops, during his visit to the country in 1998 – after Groer had finally been removed from his post, largely thanks to upwards of 50,000 Catholics leaving the church in protest at his continued presence after multiple allegations surfaced against him in 1995 – John Paul II remarked “like every house that has special rooms that are not open to guests, the Church also needs rooms for talks that require privacy”[The Power and the Glory Pg 438]. Presumably the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, whose career prospered hugely during John Paul II’s pontificate had ready and repeated access to these “special rooms”, given that child abuse allegations were made against him as far back as 1959 – allegations that continued to surface from the 1970s through to 2006 when Pope Benedict XVI finally asked him to retire into a life of prayer and contemplation. John Paul II chose to be accompanied by Maciel on three separate Papal visits to Mexico, and went to his grave tacitly supporting the Mexican.

While the ‘beyond belief’ chapter highlights Yallop’s strengths – a willingness to go beyond the received wisdom, a sharp investigative mind coupled with a narrative skill, and the tenacity of a pitbull – it also highlights two fundamental problems with the book. The first is the appaling lack of footnotes. The chapter on clerical sex abuse contains one single footnote, which is more than can be said for chapters 3-6. Those wishing to cast doubt on Yallop’s arguments need merely to point to this fundamental failure in presentation, which is a shame, as the arguments made, for example in the ‘beyond belief’ chapter are backed up independently by other sources (take a brief look at the Ferns Report into Clerical sex abuse produced by an Irish Government Inquiry board, for example).

The second chief failing of the book is Yallop’s tendency to treat all aspects of Wotjlya’s pontificate with the same tenor of outrage, mixing the scandalous failings of John Paul II’s Vatican (the handling of sex abuse cases, financial corruption, moral compromises with more than a handful of dictators) with questions of theology and tradition (women priests, priestly celibacy, democracy within the Church). Indignation in the face of the first is perfectly understandable, given the facts Yallop brings to the table. His outrage at Wotjlya’s strict adherence to traditional Church teaching on issues like contraception, and papal infallibility seem forced and off the point. One has the choice, at least since the enlightenment, as to whether one wishes to accept the harsh doctrines of the Roman Catholic church – the countless children raped by priests around the world, with the aid of Mother Church, had no such choice.

Aside from anything, one of the interesting points that the book makes (over and again, as with other arguments on display , repetition being one of the most disappointing aspects of the book) is that while John Paul II was without doubt the Pope that reached the largest worldwide audience in the history of the Church, it was an audience that focused primarily on those dominant images while on a large scale ignoring the doctrines he lectured on:

Wojtyla, a man who prided himself on speaking many languages, listened in none of them. But then no Pope in 2,000 years has been listened to by more and heeded by fewer. As the late Vaticanoligist, Peter Hebblethwaite, remarked during the early years of this reign, “They like the singer, not the song” [pg 680].

The Power and the Glory: Inside the Dark Heart of John Paul II’s Vatican by David Yallop is published by Constable books.

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