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Expect delays before John Paul II is made a saint

The current church scandal will further prolong efforts to beatify the late pope.

Rumors that she might have a relapse were then strongly denied in an official statement by French bishops. The alleged miracle, they said, still has to be verified by the Vatican. But doubts remain and a commission of doctors is due to meet in the next weeks to study her case. Should they agree that her recovery was miraculous, the process would then require another vote by Vatican theologians and cardinals, before the final signature by Pope Benedict himself.

With these final hurdles remaining, a media frenzy has focused on the late pope. It was stirred, quite unusually, by the Chief Postulatore himself, who has recently published a book on John Paul II.

The book, "Why a saint?", draws on the documents he collected during the beatification process, particularly on 114 sworn testimonies given by people who knew Wojtyla personally. His initiative was seen as highly unorthodox as all materials relative to a beatification cause are supposed to be Vatican secrets. Oder replied to criticism saying that he doesn't give the names of his sources but just refers to them in general terms.

Among other revelations, the book described how the late pope “flagellated himself both in Poland and in the Vatican”: “In his closet, among the cassocks, there was a hook holding a particular belt for slacks, which he used as a whip.” While bodily penance was common among medieval saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, the practice is now associated with conservative movements such as Opus Dei and generally abandoned in the Catholic Church.

Other embarrassing news came from Poland, where a lifelong friend of John Paul II, psychiatrist Wanda Poltawska, published their decades-long correspondence, shedding light on a very un-pope-like female friendship.

No one in the Vatican doubts that Wojtyla should eventually be declared a saint. The church knows it needs his universally recognized charisma more than ever, as the sex abuse scandal spreads to continental Europe and touches even Pope Benedict. A global event such as a John Paul II beatification ceremony, which could be attended by millions, would boost the image and status of the papacy.

But now the sex abuse scandal itself might further complicate matters: New revelations show that one of Wojtyla's main proteges, Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, abused minors and led a double life, fathering at least one son and probably more.

Austrian cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also recalled, in an interview on Austrian television, how the Vatican Curia during John Paul II's reign obstinately protected Hermann Groer, an archbishop of Vienna who was revealed to have abused minors. After a power struggle behind the Vatican's walls, John Paul II heeded the advice of those who didn't want an investigation and Groer got away with an apology that admitted no guilt. “In the past three years," Groer wrote in 1998, "there have been many often incorrect statements concerning me. I ask God and the people for forgiveness if I have brought guilt upon myself.”

With the scandal building, many in the Vatican want John Paul II on the altars as soon as possible, before other inconvenient aspects of his life come to light. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, lifetime secretary to Wojtyla and now the powerful archbishop of Krakow, has criticized both Poltawska and Oder, asking the latter to explain his actions in a private meeting.

But the revelations might also shape the image of the future saint. Conservative Catholic analysts have drawn attention to darker sides of Wojtyla's personality, such as his self-flagellation, as they reinforce those inside the church who want a more conservative, traditional approach to Catholicism. They might see benefit in pressing for his beatification at a time when Vatican positions — from celibacy to condoms — look more open to debate.