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Paedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church: similarities and differences between Poland and countries of Western Europe

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Poland – A question frequently asked about the future of the Polish Catholic Church and of Poland as a whole is whether they will go down the path followed by Ireland, where a formerly Catholic, conservative and pro-life society has become highly secularised and has espoused the cause of liberal progressivism in a matter of just a few decades. It is commonly admitted that one of the root causes of that fundamental change in Ireland has been the crisis of the Catholic Church caused by major paedophilia scandals. Other European countries have also been affected by such scandals, among them Poland, albeit on a lesser scale. In March 2019, the Polish Bishops’ Conference published its own statistics on cases of sexual crimes committed against minors in the years 1990–2018. According to the report, there were 382 known cases of such crimes for that period, including 198 committed against children under the age of 15. In nearly 95% of all cases a canonical trial had been conducted or was under way, leading to sanctions in most instances, including dismissal of the accused from the clerical state in about a quarter of all cases. It is also worth noting that when the Polish Ministry of Justice was asked by the Senate in 2013 to publish its statistics on persons convicted of sexual crimes against minors in the past 10 years, there were 27 priests among them, out of a total of over 6,000 convicted paedophiles. If these statistics are to be believed, the scale of paedophilia in the Polish Church is nowhere near that in Ireland. To clarify, here the word paedophilia applies to any sexual abuse against a person under 18, as per Canon Law, although secular law often only treats as paedophilia sexual relations with minors under a lower age limit, such as the age of 15 in Poland.

Much publicity concerning paedophilia among Polish clerics was created by three films: the first released in cinemas in 2018, and the other two made freely available on the YouTube platform in 2019 and 2020. The first film, titled “Clergy” (Kler), is a work of fiction featuring three priests and a bishop who together exhibit all the worst possible human characteristics: a penchant for paedophilia and other sexual deviances, contempt for the law, corruption, hypocrisy, crypto-fascism, vulgarity, alcoholism and brutality. If the four main characters had been members of the LGBT community, such a film would have been labelled as overtly homophobic and hate-filled. But in Poland, as elsewhere, it is acceptable in some circles to produce a caricature of Catholics and the Catholic Church, and thanks to the huge publicity generated by the leftist and liberal media, the film “Clergy” attracted over 5 million viewers in just a few months (in a country of 38 million inhabitants!). Since the beginning of the 1990s, only two Polish films had recorded larger cinema audiences. The next two films which brought the topic of paedophilia in the Church back to the headlines after “Clergy” were documentaries about real cases of paedophilia and sexual crimes committed against minors by members of the Catholic clergy, and about the way some of them were transferred between parishes and protected by their bishops. Both documentaries were produced by the Sekielski brothers and financed by crowdfunding, and they were made freely available on YouTube. The first of the two films, titled “Tell No One” (Tylko nie mów nikomu), was posted in May 2019 and was viewed 14 million times in the first four days. It features nine priests and their victims, including a priest who used to be Lech Walesa’s chaplain and a Marianist priest who initiated the construction of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Licheń. The second of the two documentaries, “Hide and Seek” (Zabawa w chowanego), confronts two brothers with their former paedophile priest abuser, and focuses on the role of the bishop of Kalisz, Edward Janiak, in protecting the latter by refusing to take action. It was posted on YouTube in May 2020 and had almost 7 million views after 10 days. As a consequence of this second film, the primate of Poland, archbishop Wojciech Polak, who is also the delegate of the Polish Bishops’ Conference for the protection of children, declared that he had seen the film and that it showed that not all standards for protecting children and teenagers normally enforced by the Church had been respected in the case depicted. The case of bishop Janiak was subsequently referred to the Vatican for further proceedings.

There was also much noise made about paedophilia in the Polish Church in early 2019, when a liberal MP and the chairman of the Do Not Be Afraid (Nie Lękajcie Się) foundation, which was created a few years ago to bring help to the victims of paedophile priests, were received in the Vatican by Pope Francis, to whom they delivered a report about paedophilia in the Polish Church. It soon transpired, however, that the report contained mainly information about known cases, some of them based only on media reports where the allegations had not been proved in court and had not been further checked by the authors. It turned out later that the chairman of the Do Not Be Afraid foundation, Marek Lisiński, had been lying all along about his own experience as a victim of a paedophile priest, and that he had made up all his accusations against a priest whom he blackmailed for money. Consequently, his foundation eventually dissolved itself in January 2020.

As part of a campaign to force the Catholic Church in Poland to tackle its perceived paedophilia issue and lack of transparency, a map of paedophilia in the Polish Church was published in October 2018, along with the release of the fictional film “Clergy”. The authors of that map listed 300 perpetrators and 650 victims as of March 2020. However, this list includes not only cases brought to court (71 convicted priests in total, including 55 for sexual crimes against children under 15), but also cases only reported to the Do Not Be Afraid foundation, some of them anonymously, by people claiming to have been victims of paedophile priests. The map also lists many cases which are several decades old.

It is therefore not easy to distinguish the real scale of the problem in the Polish Church, given the information released by the Church itself, allegations of lack of transparency by former victims or people who are sincerely interested in tackling the problem, and also elements of a smear campaign taking place as part of a broader offensive against the Catholic Church for ideological or political motives, especially that Poland is currently the target of an ideological offensive with some pronounced anticlerical and anti-Catholic overtones. In any case, these real and perceived paedophilia scandals do not seem to be having an effect on the number of Poles claiming to be Catholic and attending mass every Sunday, although it has to be said that the most recent figures published by the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church in Poland (ISKK) date back to 2018. Those figures show that nearly 40% of Polish Catholics (who amount to over 92% of the total population) go to mass every week, and this level has been stable for the last ten years, while accusations of paedophilia and lack of transparency in the Church have been common in left-wing media for many years. It may be noted that the proportion of Catholic Poles attending mass every Sunday stood at 50% in 1990 and over 47% in 2000. Still, despite alarming reports and the high expectations of the left, Poles of all ages remain by far the most religious people in Europe.

Ireland is the country most often mentioned as an indicator of what could happen in Poland, in particular when considering cases of sexual abuse. Paedophilia among priests and accusations of abuses against children by clergy in that formerly predominantly Catholic society are believed to have been a major factor in the rapid secularisation of the country, which led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 and abortion on demand in 2018. A list released in 2018, after many years of allegations and scandals, revealed that over 1,300 members of the Irish clergy had been accused of sexual abuse against minors, but only 82 had been convicted. At the same time, the proportion of those regularly attending Sunday mass has fallen sharply from a level of almost 90% in the early 1980s to some 20%, according to a report on the age gap in religion around the world published by the Pew Research Center in 2018. This is to be compared to 42% of Poles attending a weekly service according to the same study. Nevertheless, the fact that the study marks Poland as the country with the biggest age gap in religious practice, with 55% of people over 40 attending a weekly religious service and only 26% of those under 40 doing so, may be a sign that Poland is heading in the same direction as Ireland. Of course, paedophilia scandals among the clergy are not the sole factor, as Poland, notwithstanding the ideological pressure from abroad, is not free from the liberal and secular evolution that has characterised all Western societies during the last decades.

In other European countries, the Church has been accused – as in Poland and Ireland – of protecting paedophiles in its ranks and of trying to sweep the issue under the carpet for as long as possible. In France and Germany, as in Poland last year, the Bishops’ Conferences recently released their own statistics in order to answer critics. In Germany, the figures were presented at the German Bishops’ Conference in 2018 following four years of investigation. The report spanning the period from 1946 to 2014 showed that some 1,670 members of the clergy had committed sexual abuse against minors, with 3,677 victims in total, most of whom were boys. It also showed that 60% of perpetrators escaped punishment, with many paedophile priests being simply moved from parish to parish to cover their crimes. As in Ireland, but unlike in Poland up to now, Germany has seen a few large-scale scandals which shocked public opinion, like that of Bavaria’s Domspatzen Catholic choir in Regensburg or the scandal involving homosexual Jesuit teachers at the Jesuit Canisius College in Berlin. Last November, the French Bishops’ Conference heard the results of a year of research conducted by a special commission made up of clergy and laypersons. In the first five months of its work, 2,800 cases of sexual abuse by clerics were reported to the special commission set up by the Conference to inquire into the issue of paedophilia. As in Germany and Ireland, the research conducted in France led to the conclusion that most sexual abuses took place in the decades preceding the 1990s. This is worth noting, as it was a time when part of the left and also part of the gay lobby in Western Europe and North America advocated the legalisation of paedophilia on the wave of the sexual liberation of the 1960s. Thus the issue of paedophilia did not affect only the Catholic Church, be it in Germanyin the UK, in France, or elsewhere in the West.

The Polish Church, being the Church of a post-communist country, suffers from not having undergone a lustration process – the process of purging itself of former informants of the secret police. Such people may have been forced into collaboration by blackmail, exerted most often by exploiting a priest’s weaknesses which had come to the secret police’s knowledge. Such weaknesses could be linked to a priest’s covert sexual life, be it a secret relationship with a woman, homosexual tendencies, or even, in some cases, paedophile crimes. For this reason, a dire consequence of the lack of lustration may very well be the continued presence of sexual predators among the Catholic clergy in Poland, not least among senior Church figures, where some also point to the presence of a Lavender Mafia, a term used to designate gay and gay-friendly clerics in the Vatican and elsewhere. Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski is one of the most vocal critics of the refusal by leading Polish clergy to conduct lustration in their own ranks. Being a former victim of communist repression, he has had access to some files of the secret police kept by the Institute of National Remembrance. He has thus been able to establish that in the diocese of Cracow alone, 39 priests were active collaborators of the communist regime, among whom four are now bishops. In his view, the Polish Church cannot deal effectively with the problem of sexual offences against minors (who are predominantly boys in their teens) if it does not deal with the problem of lustration and active gay men within its ranks. And indeed, shortly after the first of the two documentaries by the Sekielski brothers was released in May 2019, some commentators pointed to the fact that three of the paedophile priests shown in the documentary had been informants of the secret police in communist Poland.

On the other hand, the sexual revolution of the 1960s did not affect Poland to the same extent as Western Europe and North America (where the John Jay Report pointed to 4,392 priests accused of sexual abuse against minors in the USA in the years 1950-2002), as it was at that time a communist police state. Additionally, potential serial abusers among clerics knew that they were under special surveillance, as were all members of the Catholic clergy. For these reasons, it might very well be that the lesser scale of the problem reflected by statistics disclosed last year by the Polish Bishops’ Conference does match the real situation and is not an effect of a lack of transparency. If so, those who would like to see the Polish Church follow the Irish path, and Catholic Poland become quickly secularised and less conservative as a consequence of paedophile scandals, are waiting in vain.

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