Published July 18, 2019
KRAKÓW, Poland—The drama of the past year in the Church in the United States can sometimes distract from the global dimensions of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance. Here in Poland, where I’ve been since late June, the Church faces its own scandal of clerical sexual abuse.
A report, released in March by the Polish bishops’ conference, admitted that 382 priests have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors since 1990. These allegations came from 625 different victims.
Most of the victims in Poland were more than 15-years-old, a significantly higher percentage than in the United States. A majority of the victims are male: 58.4 percent of the cases reported by the Polish bishops. [N.B.: The legal age of consent in Poland at the time of the report’s release was 15, the age of majority is 18.]
The handling of these cases has, at times and in ways sickeningly familiar, been grossly inadequate – shuffling accused priests to other assignments, blaming the crisis on anti-Church bias in the media, and so on. In some ways, the Church here is where the Church in the United States was 25 years ago.
The Polish bishops’ responses to the report ranged from sensible and heartfelt, to the dreadfully tone-deaf. Archbishop Wojciech Polack of Gniezno, the Primate of Poland, insisted that each case of abuse should “evoke our pain, shame, and guilt.” Kraków’s Archbishop, Marek Jędraszewski, stepped all over himself in trying to make a point that “zero-tolerance” shouldn’t mean “no mercy.” He chose perhaps the least helpful analogy possible: “When the Nazis fought with Jews, applying a ‘zero tolerance’ mentality, it resulted in the Holocaust.” His point was, of course, not well received.
In May, two brothers – Tomasz (writer and director) and Marek Sekielski (producer) – released a documentary film titled, Tell No One. The film details the stories of abuse survivors and the inadequate response of the bishops in Poland. It includes harrowing footage of abuse survivors confronting their abusers.
The bishops’ report in March was big news, but the release of Tell No One rocked the entire country. The film was released on YouTube, where it received more than a million views in the first six hours. To date, it has been viewed more than 22.5 million times, a staggering number when one considers that Poland has a total population of just over 38 million.
Poland being Poland, the whole drama – and the issue of clerical sexual abuse, in general –quickly took a political turn. Tell No One was released just weeks before an election for European Parliament.
The conservative ruling party, Law and Justice, has close ties to many of the Polish bishops. Some members of the opposition saw the outrage generated by the film and tried to make clerical sexual abuse a wedge-issue. The opposition overreached (including through aggressive promotion of the LGBT agenda) and the strategy backfired.
Adding to the spring of unrest were comments made by Pope Francis in a mid-air interview after his visit to Abu Dhabi in February. The Holy Father was defending the record of then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his handling of allegations of sexual abuse, specifically against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Maciel. In defending Ratzinger, Francis implied – at least to the ears of many Poles – that Ratzinger’s efforts had been stymied by the Polish pope himself.
John Paul II’s long-time secretary and the retired Archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, rushed to the defense of John Paul, insisting that the insinuations, based on Pope Francis’ ambiguous remarks, were unjust. When Pope Francis later praised John Paul’s effort to fight abuse – calling him “brave” and saying “no one can doubt the sanctity and goodwill of this man” – Dziwisz published an open letter thanking Pope Francis “for putting an end to attempts to defame St. John Paul II.”
In June, Pope Francis’ sex-abuse “fixer,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna, met with the bishops of Poland. Many in the Polish press were speculating that a raft of episcopal resignations could be forthcoming. Reports suggest Scicluna was stern, but the Polish episcopate remains intact for now.
Scicluna did take the opportunity, however, to underscore the defense of Pope John Paul II offered by Dziwisz and Pope Francis: “I am an eyewitness of the determination of St. John Paul II to combat sexual abuse of minors when such cases were brought to his attention. I believe that those who question the competence or determination of St. John Paul II in the treatment of this phenomenon should brush up on their knowledge of history.”
Several of the Poles I spoke to said there is a sense that the Bad News on the sex-abuse front is probably not over. The last several months have been a roller coaster ride. Things may settle down, especially if the Polish bishops can avoid compounding their mistakes the way too many of our own bishops have. But the general sense I get from Polish friends – devout and otherwise – is that there is still more reckoning to come.
How such a reckoning might play out in Poland is hard to guess. Poland remains extraordinarily and profoundly Catholic, but Polish Catholicism remains largely on the defensive. Close alliances between the Church and populist politics, however devout, can purchase short-term stability at a terrible long-term price. And as we have learned only too well here in the states, the ecclesial instinct to defend the institution, however piously motivated, can easily lead to actions that have precisely the opposite effect.
My sense is that the Church in Poland is much closer to the beginning of this mess than to the end. How the Polish bishops handle the abuse crisis in coming months and years will go a long way toward ensuring the future of one of the shining examples of a truly Catholic culture. That future is more precarious than many would assume.
Pray for Poland.