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Polish priests defy bishop amid scandal

May 30, 2020

Priests in the Polish diocese of Kalisz have refused to sign letters of loyalty to their bishop after a child abuse cover-up. More and more Catholics in Poland are calling on the Church to properly investigate crimes.

A crucifix
Image: AP

The documentary "Hide and Seek" by Marek and Tomasz Sekielski, which was watched by almost 7 million people on YouTube within a week, continues to make waves in Poland.

The film tells the story of two brothers who were sexually abused by a priest in the diocese of Kalisz in central Poland in the 1990s. They were 7 and 13 years old at the time. The documentary makes it clear that the local bishop, Edward Janiak, knew about the abuse and swept the scandal under the carpet. The filmmakers uncovered dozens of other cases in the diocese as well.

After the film's premiere, the diocese's council of priests, which acts as an advisory body to the bishop, was called upon to sign letters of loyalty to him. But the members of the council refused. They stated that they first wanted to wait for the results of a Vatican investigation, launched after Poland's Catholic primate, Wojciech Polak, had informed the authorities there of the abuse accusations.

"Tell No One" was Tomasz Sekielski's first filmImage: Imago Images/Eastnews

Priestly resistance

The letters of loyalty from the priests' council would have been important to investigators as evidence of support for the bishop, who is accused of trying to cover up the scandal. The fact that the priests are refusing to back their bishop in this way is unusual, the Polish theologian and ex-Jesuit Stanislaw Obirek told DW.

"These priests have shown great courage, which is a rarity in the hierarchical church structure," he said. In his opinion, their actions could contribute to getting the bishop suspended.

Obirek, currently a journalist and professor at Warsaw University, left the Jesuit order in 2005 because, he said, the church hierarchy had silenced him for his criticism of Pope John Paul II. Since then, he has been even more unsparing in his criticism of the Catholic Church.

But now he sees a possible breakthrough.

"I hope that Poland is starting to go down the path toward normality and will start to throw light on pedophile acts committed by clergy," he said.

The resistance of the priests in Kalisz, but also the growing demands from within the Catholic Church to properly investigate cases of child abuse committed by clergy are all signs of a potential change, he said.

Misleading statistics

The attitude of the church toward the issue of giving compensation to victims is also slowly changing. In the past, the church saw guilt in abuse cases, and thus any financial compensation, as being the private affair of the individual priest involved. According to Obirek, however, this is not a tenable approach.

"Priests should not be regarded in the same way as any other private person, because it is as priests that they commit these acts," he said. "It is only because they are priests that they get so much access to young people."

People took to the streets of Warsaw telling priests to keep their hands off kidsImage: Wlodek Ciejka

As a child, Obirek himself was a victim of abuse by a priest, but he has not yet decided to take his tormentor to court. He said the Catholic Church in Poland has paid out €400,000 ($443,860) in compensation to victims on the basis of verdicts handed down by civil courts. Obirek added, however, that generally only a small number of victims officially report the abuse. The problem is much broader than official statistics indicate, he says.

In spring 2019, the Polish Bishops' Conference published figures on child sex abuse by clergy for the first time. According to those figures, 328 priests had abused 625 children since 1990. The report said a quarter of these priests had been suspended. But mostly, the church has imposed other penalties, such as banning such priests from working with children. Several accused have been transferred to other locations. Some 10% of church trials ended in acquittal. The civil courts dealt with 44% of the cases, with 85 priests being convicted.

First cracks in the concrete

In recent years, the country has been rocked by a series of such scandals. In 2019, it became known that Pastor Henryk Jankowski from Gdansk, the well-known chaplain of the Solidarity movement, had been sexually abusing children since the 1960s. Many knew what had happened, but nobody had done anything, his victims said. In Gdansk, a monument to Jankowski, who died in 2010, was toppled by activists, and the square that bore his name was renamed. The city of Gdansk has revoked his honorary citizenship.

But Jankowski also had many defenders, like many other child-abusing priests. In one of the most blatant cases of such support, a priest who was finally convicted for the abuse of six girls was allowed to continue working in his village. The bishop had defended him by shifting the blame onto the children, who, he said, had sought "closeness to the pastor."

According to Stanislaw Obirek, this type of thinking is rife among Catholics in Poland, where the village priest is "equal to Christ". But, he says, the attitude of the priests in Kalisz who are standing up to their bishop "shows that the church is no longer a monolith. The concrete is cracking."

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