Special Reports / Church and paedophilia

The cracked world of a Catholic

Łukasz Pawłowski · 1 October 2013
The loss of trust means that the Church’s prestige has to increasingly rest on some other foundation. In the case of the Polish Church, this new foothold is… fear. It is precisely this loss of authority that explains the increasing ease with which this usually gentle institution passes verdicts of guilty against people who reject its recommendations. When the ground is slipping from beneath your foot, you plant the other foot more firmly.

The crisis sparked by accusations of paedophilia once again brings to light the divisions in the Polish Church. Some hierarchs see an urgent need for a “deep reflection”, apologise to the victims and talk about necessary compensation. Others refuse to comment on the issue or avoid giving answers, viewing such scandals as internal problems of the Church. It is not the first time we see that the institution which for decades used to be one of the rare spaces for free dialogue in the old People’s Republic of Poland is losing its ability to communicate with the world around it.

It is a serious problem even for such an experienced organisation as the Catholic Church. Hiding itself behind a thousand year history marked by serious challenges, the Polish Church is justifying its unwillingness to notice the changes brought about by the technological revolution, which transforms people’s lives much more quickly than centuries ago. Apparently, the Polish Church hierarchs still believe that for the majority of the faithful their sermons and decrees remain the main or even the only source of information. This is a myth.

In the era of fast development of new media, of easy information transfer, of ubiquitous video cameras and devices recording all statements in such dramatic cases as the suspicions of paedophilia among priests, everything is immediately analysed and no uncertainty can go unnoticed. A Polish Catholic is increasingly likely to see the inconsistency of the messages sent by the Church and must reconcile the discrepancies on his or her own.

What should the faithful think if day after day they are persuaded to accept the divine calling of priests, who are, after all, the vicars of God, and, at the same time – during such crises as the present one – the believers are told that clergymen are merely human beings, susceptible to temptations and mistakes? What should they think if they hear the spokesman of the Congregation of Saint Michael the Archangel saying that he has no idea about the whereabouts of the monk accused of paedophilia and a few moments later they hear from a couple of sources that the priest sought by Interpol was seen only a month ago in his home diocese and that he might still be there? How can they believe Bishop Pieronek who asserts  that he is sorry for the situation and, at the same time, emphatically states that the priests’ victims cannot expect any material help? And the only reason is that such help is not explicitly required by the law. “In the States – yes, because of the system they have there,” said Bishop Pieronek. “Their financial system puts burden on dioceses (…). But in Poland, we did not let ourselves be trapped in this vicious circle.” Is a sense of responsibility for the offences an insufficient rationale to provide help to the victims? Should this decision be dependent only upon the provisions of law?

How can Catholics accept the statement issued by the Primate of Poland, who says that the Polish Church will not take the responsibility for the harms done by its people, if now and then we hear the hierarchs saying that criticism against this or that priest is an attack against the entire Church? Finally, what should the faithful do if, having turned on their TV sets, they see a priest from one of the curiae affected by paedophilia who, when asked about such cases, responds to the journalist in a light tone: “You are indeed handsome, but we aren’t saying anything”.

This information chaos undermines our trust in the institution which not so long ago seemed to be a monolith. And the loss of trust means that the Church’s prestige has to increasingly rest on some other foundation. In the case of the Polish Church, this new foothold is… fear: fear of loneliness in the face of death, of condemnation (both in an eternal and earthly dimension – when the condemnatory words are spoken from the pulpit); fear of betraying the tradition, of losing an important part of one’s identity. It is precisely the loss of authority that explains the increasing ease with which this usually gentle institution passes verdicts of guilt against people who reject its recommendations. When the ground is slipping from beneath your foot, you plant the other foot more firmly.

It seems to be a bitter irony that such things happen during the pontificate of the Pope who wants to lead the Church in the opposite direction. Instead of maintaining an unconditional attachment to the traditional interpretation of the doctrine, he exhorts clergymen to understand the changing world; instead of passing judgments of condemnation, he proposes a dialogue; instead of cultivating the myths about clergymen’s infallibility, he stands corrected; instead of isolating himself from the faithful, he seeks to accept them in order to gain their acceptance. This is another inconsistency that Polish Catholics have to face: the Church is ruled by a priest who, if for some reason were ordered to serve in Poland, would be prohibited from speaking in public.

This cannot continue in the long term. For many years, the Polish Church fought for the democratisation of society. It is high time that society helped in the democratisation of the Church.