Plans to canonize abuse-tainted pontiffs reveal disconnect.

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This Sunday, one week after Easter, Pope Francis is scheduled to canonize two of his predecessors, John Paul II and John XXIII. Few moves could so quickly undo his popular efforts to make the Roman Catholic Church more sensitive to the values of modern churchgoers.

Francis has concentrated much of his 13-month papacy on making symbolic gestures. To great news media fanfare, he wears black boots with his clerical robes instead of more formal, traditional slippers, and he sleeps in a hotel built for cardinals rather than the papal apartment in the Vatican palace.

Church knew

The impact of the Argentine pontiff raising two popes to sainthood after their failures to address the globe-spanning clergy sex abuse scandal would be far more than symbolic. The scandal damaged thousands of innocent lives and cost the church billions of dollars in legal damages as well as its moral standing.

John XXIII, pope from 1958 to 1963, and John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005, both held their positions after the widespread abuse, stretching back deep into the 20th century, was known to the Vatican.

The strict hierarchical structure of the Roman church means accountability goes straight to the top. The buck stops at the pope's desk, for good or for ill.

Canonizing pontiffs from the era of abuse is not only tone deaf but also exposes a continuing, stubborn refusal to acknowledge the institutional coverup that occurred for decades and that those at the highest levels — including popes — didn't do enough to prevent the crimes, enabling the crisis to continue.

Many faithful plead that being the leader of an institution with 1.2 billion souls is a big job, and that popes can't know everything. The excuse isn't legitimate.

The Catholic bureaucratic structure that links parishes and dioceses to the central-governing Roman Curia is one of the world's most effective communications networks — so much so that it provided invaluable on-the-ground intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain to the Reagan administration during the Cold War. What's playing in Peoria, or rather, who is playing around in Peoria, really does make its way to St. Peter's Basilica.

Protecting predators

The other major factor in papal complicity for sex crimes is that popes personally appoint all the bishops in the Catholic Church and are responsible for their tenures. All 5,000 bishops serve at the pleasure of the holy father and resign or retire when their boss says so.

Some of the most egregious offenders, such as Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles who withheld a list of potentially abused altar boys from police and has settled $700 million in abuse claims, were not only promoted to bishop but also given the cardinal's prestigious red hat by John Paul II.

Outside of those who were martyred, the Catholic Church traditionally has found few pontiffs worthy to be saints. In fact, only two have been canonized in the past 700 years.

High standard

There is a good reason for this. The church teaches that a priest is responsible for every soul in his parish, a bishop for each person in his diocese and the pope for the whole world. The bar is set purposely high because the duties of being vicar of Christ are so immense.

More can always be done to relieve suffering in this world, which an old prayer calls a "valley of tears." There is little reason to believe that these two popes need to be raised above all the others, especially now.

The Catholic Church declares individuals to be saints to give the faithful role models of heroic virtue and show how one should live life to get to heaven. Because of their sins of omission in face of horrors at the hands of their clergy, neither John Paul II nor John XXIII should be canonized as exemplars of sanctity.

Brett M. Decker is consulting director at the White House Writers Group.

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