Special Reports / Church and paedophilia

A back-to-reality lesson

Stanisław Obirek · 1 October 2013
Paedophilia is not a problem of the community of the faithful. The Polish Church has a problem with its hierarchs. The contrast between bishops’ expectations and their attempts to cover up their own sins makes us increasingly bewildered by the current situation of the Church.

Since the beginning of John Paul II’s pontificate, i.e. since the turn of the 70s and 80s, the representatives of the Polish Church have been persistently trying to convince the rest of the world that it is heading in the wrong direction, and that the Polish Church – thanks to the cult of martyrdom and sanctity built over the two centuries – should evangelise to this paganised Europe. The neo-romantic image of Poland as the Christ of nations has taken a very concrete form. With new scandals erupting around us, this extremely irritating rhetoric, regarded as such by both agnostics and a number of Catholics, is losing its raison d’être.

I would call it a back-to-reality lesson. Past illusions are being confronted with the facts. Archbishop Wesołowski and Reverend Gil show that we are no different – we face similar problems as other Churches, and our sense of superiority is completely ungrounded. Thus begins the process of clearing the image and memory of the Polish Church. Mrożek cured drama, Gomrowicz cured prose, so maybe sinners will help to bring the Church back to reality?

Ekke Overbeek, a Dutch journalist, author of the book entitled Be Afraid: Victims of Paedophilia by the Catholic Church Speak, was shocked when he came to Poland. He could not comprehend why the Polish Church – in contrast to other countries – is unable to deal with paedophilia. Why is it that clerical perpetrators are not treated as other culprits, who are brought before a court, imprisoned and forced to compensate their victims? In Poland, we do not take any practical measures.

The difference between the conduct of the Church representatives abroad – mostly, I believe, those in the US and Ireland – and the attitude of the Polish bishops is astonishing. Paedophilia is not a problem of the Church when the Church is understood as the community of the faithful; it is a problem of the Church hierarchs, who consistently claim that the Polish Church is completely free from pathology, though the faithful would like to have the problem of child abuse solved. In this strictly hierarchical structure, it is easy to identify individuals who turn a blind eye to the issue. Only a bishop can dismiss a paedophilic priest and submit him to a standard judicial procedure. But a bishop can also cover for his subordinate and move him from parish to parish, as was the case with Archbishop Michalik, who protected the parish priest from Tylawa. Those who raised this subject were perceived as being guilty of slandering the Church. Bishop Hoser has recently followed in the footsteps of Reverend Wojciech Lipka, chancellor of the Curia of Warszawa-Praga, who tried to twist everything around with his Aesopic speech. The ones to be blamed are the bishops who have been pursuing a policy of hushing things up and shielding the perpetrators from justice.

Every sin in the Church – whether it is the sin of Bishop Paetz from Poznań or the sin of the parish priest from Tylawa – casts a shadow on the Church. The bishops, however, strive to ensure an extended doctrine of infallibility, believing that not only the Pope but also they themselves are infallible. They fiercely defend the image of the Church as an exemplary and model institution. The problem here is a false and anachronistic concept of the sanctity and immaculacy of the Church, with the conviction that the sins committed in the Church should not be associated with its people – a stigmatised person is automatically removed from its ranks. Repeated like a mantra (by Primate Kowalczyk, for example), the statement by Reverend Józef Kloch, the spokesperson of the Polish Episcopal Conference, that the Church does not shoulder collective responsibility and cannot bear the costs of offences committed by paedophilic priests is a curiosity on a global scale. Abroad, the responsibility for crimes committed by monks and priests fell on whole monastic provinces and dioceses, respectively. Provincials and bishops accused of covering up such crimes were treated as accomplices and administered adequate punishment. I hope that stimulated by Pope Francis’s concrete actions, we will eradicate this Polish curiosity, just as other similar traits.

But for the time being, Bishop Polak’s apology is, I am afraid, the only thing we can expect from the institution which for decades has been establishing stringent, almost ascetic standards for the faithful whilst at the same time remaining extremely lenient towards its own representatives. This contrast between bishops’ expectations and their attempts to cover up their own sins makes us increasingly bewildered by the current situation of the Church. But the decisions made by the Pope, who in August recalled the nuncio from the Dominican Republic and in September suspended the auxiliary bishop from Peru, indicate that the Polish Catholic Church will have to rethink its hitherto followed practices.