Special Reports / Church and paedophilia

When the sacred touches the profane

Katarzyna Kazimierowska · 1 October 2013
Is it enough to wear sackcloth and ashes and say “sorry” to absolve oneself of the blame for harm done to the youngest believers? I do not think so.

The article on the events in the Dominican Republic, “Smutek tropików” [Tropical Sadness], which I read in “Gazeta Wyborcza”, is deeply powerful . The author treated the subject seriously and presented all the interested parties. But he offers no glimmer of hope that the accusations levelled against both clergymen serving in the Dominican Republic – as claimed by some – are a result of defamation and mafia revenge. We have two culprits here who have found a comfortable place in a society functioning within the machismo culture, where child sexual abuse and prostitution are a part of the beautiful landscape.

The case has been covered by the foreign media and has come under the scope of inquiry of Interpol; it cannot be concealed, belittled or quickly forgotten, all the more that it is only one of many incidents that have been lately discussed in the context of paedophilia in the Polish Catholic Church. And this is the reason why this case is so unsettling, especially when we read that it was only in September that Reverend Grzegorz K., who in March last year was convicted of child abuse, was removed from his post as a parish priest. The way some clergymen reacted, when asked about the reasons for the delayed response from the Church, also leaves a lot to be desired. Because this is not an internal problem of the Church. This is a social problem.

Against this backdrop, the voices of some right-wing commentators and politicians, claiming that such incidents are publicised only to destroy the Church, are all the more irritating. Tomasz Terlikowski, a social commentator, has recently dazzled us with his statement that “the aim of the battle with paedophilia is to wangle some money”. Thus did he comment upon the mission of the “Nie lękajcie się” foundation, which brings together victims of paedophilia in the Church. It is outrageous that in response to information on new sexual offences committed by Catholic priests, people accuse the victims of wanting to destroy the Church and extort money. Such accusations are easy to make and put on paper if the author is not a victim of sexual violence himself– as this is the only label that can be applied to infringement of bodily autonomy committed for sexual reasons. A layperson legally convicted of paedophilia would not only have to pay compensation but, above all, would be imprisoned for many years. Why is it that priests are not taken to prison? Why is it that they do not have to pay any compensation? They are not saints, they have no status as God’s chosen people. Their title of God’s representatives is a self-awarded honour.

We should abandon the idea that a man in a cassock is above the law, that he is granted a greater scope of rights, and that his words and actions are sanctified by God’s grace. He is not. A priest is immersed in the profane just as every one of us. And it is not the Bible in his hand that grants him authority but his actions, for which he should be judged like any layperson. I agree with Bishop Pieronek who says that paedophilia exists in all occupational groups and claims that a number of isolated cases should not bring condemnation to the whole institution. But the problem here is that the clergymen are the most powerful occupational group in Poland: not only do they influence the society, but also affect the political sphere, shape our lives, mores and law. They influence our bodies and our minds. They expect not only obedience but full trust, saying: “Give me your hand and I will lead you”. Therefore, when the churchmen clearly abuse our trust, when they abuse their power and authority, leading not even us but our children to dark alleys or on the backseats of their cars, the Church should not be surprised with our objections. Unless the Church begins to treat paedophilic priests as criminals who betrayed the trust of people and of the Church itself and begins to punish them hard, this institution will never recover the capital of trust and support, built over years both on the solid foundation of faith and on the concealment of its own sins.

As long as the Church cultivates its ambivalent attitude to paedophilia within its ranks, it will keep on losing its authority. And no opinion of a right-wing politician or commentator will save it, as nobody wants their children to be sheep harmed by the shepherd.