But John Paul did not speak publicly about sexual abuse by priests until eight years later, after a furor over another pedophile priest, James Porter, who had more than 100 alleged victims in Fall River, Mass.
Addressing a group of visiting U.S. bishops in Rome in 1993, the pope said he shared their "sadness and disappointment when those entrusted with the ministry fail in their commitment, becoming a cause of public scandal." Much of his message, however, was an attack on "sensationalism" in the news media, leaving the strong impression that he believed the sex abuse problem was exaggerated in America.
April 2002: Reading a message to American cardinals after summoning them to the Vatican to discuss clergy sexual abuse. "There is no place in the priesthood or in religious life for those who would harm the young," the pope declared. Victims argue that he should have done much more.
(Arturo Mari -- AP)
"Woe to societies where scandal becomes an everyday event," he said.
Nevertheless, at the request of U.S. bishops, the pope in 1994 changed church law in the United States to lengthen the statute of limitations on accusations of sexual abuse to 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday. Previously, it had been five years from the date of the offense.
In 2002, a fresh scandal erupted when a Boston judge released church documents showing that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his assistant bishops had secretly shuffled abusers from parish to parish. In response, John Paul amended canon law again by accepting the bishops' zero tolerance policy, though only after Vatican officials insisted on changes to protect the due process rights of accused priests. Law later resigned under pressure.
In recent years the pontiff also condemned sexual abuse more directly and forcefully. In his address to U.S. cardinals in April 2002, he said it was "rightly considered a crime by society" as well as "an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," he added. It was the closest he came to a personal apology.
Five months earlier, a papal message to the people of Oceania noted that "the Synod Fathers wished to apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment" caused to the people of Oceania by "sexual abuse within the church."
To many victims and their families, however, the pope's actions fell short. Under John Paul, they contend, the Vatican was more aggressive about stamping out dissent within the priesthood over birth control than it was about protecting children.
Papal biographer George Weigel argues that the critics' portrayal of an uncaring John Paul is wrong. He said John Paul was "deeply, deeply grieved" by the unholy actions of members of the clergy.
Other Vatican officials have echoed the papal denunciations. As recently as March 25, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's theological watchdog and one of John Paul's closest aides, made a clear reference to clerical sex abuse in the meditations he provided for Good Friday observances in Rome. According to a Vatican translation, Ratzinger assailed "how much filth there is in the church . . . even among . . . the priesthood."
Like many traditionalist Catholics, Weigel also contends that the origins of the scandal lie in the 1960s, under previous popes who tolerated dissent and allowed a gay subculture to develop in the priesthood. The solution, in his view, is to continue down the path set by John Paul: strict fidelity to church teachings that support celibacy for priests and condemn homosexual activity.
In his 2002 book "The Courage to Be Catholic," however, Weigel acknowledged that the Vatican was slow to recognize the crisis in the U.S. church, tending to view the scandal as a creation of the secular news media, opportunistic lawyers and the church's enemies.
Debate over the pope's degree of responsibility for the scandal appears likely to continue for years.
Richard R. Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo who has written several books on authority in the church, said that neither John Paul nor any church leader "consciously encouraged" clerical sex abuse.
But Gaillardetz said he would assign the pope some indirect responsibility for the hierarchy's attempts to hide the problem.
"He encouraged an ecclesiastical culture that emphasizes vertical accountability -- priest to bishop, bishop to the pope -- and very little horizontal accountability" of bishops to one another and to the laity, Gaillardetz said.
"In general that is going to be one of the most serious criticisms leveled against this papacy, that he turned away from the direction many people saw in Vatican II, which is the principle of subsidiary or decentralized control," Gaillardetz added, referring to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "That is a disturbing pattern, a larger pattern of this pontificate."
David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church," a 2003 book about long-term change in the church, also attributes the coverup partly to John Paul's insistence on central control.
"The bottom line is: Cardinal Law was the pope's favorite son in America, and Cardinal Law's sense of a corporate church that he ran, with everybody else on a need-to-know basis, was very much an attitude that came from Rome. Rome did not want scandals. Rome under this papacy was focused on exalting the iconic image of the priest," Gibson said.
Rightly or wrongly, Gibson contends, the sexual abuse scandal and John Paul will be inextricably linked.
"After so many years as pope, people have almost begun to forget what a heroic figure he was and how close he came to being martyred on St. Peter's Square," he said. "The scandal is not going to define his legacy, but it does mean that every obituary, every discussion of his legacy, will have to say, 'But . . .' "