A journalist investigated JPII’s handling of abuse claims. Here’s what he found

The Pillar [Washington DC]

March 24, 2023

By Luke Coppen

The Polish journalist Tomasz Krzyżak is one of just four people who have examined the archives related to the future St. John Paul II’s handling of abuse cases and published their findings.

Krzyżak and his colleague Piotr Litka have come to strikingly different conclusions from the two other investigators, whose claims have been reported internationally, provoking an acrimonious debate in Poland and concern throughout the Catholic world.

The Polish television reporter Marcin Gutowski and the Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek have argued that there is sufficient evidence to believe that John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyła) covered up abuse while serving as Archbishop of Kraków from 1964 to 1978. 

Krzyżak, who writes for the respected daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, rejects their contention. In an interview with The Pillar, he discussed what archival material is available to researchers, what he makes of the cases under the media spotlight, and why Gutowski and Overbeek’s theses have dominated the headlines.

The interview was conducted in Polish via email and translated into English.

Could you explain what archive material is currently available to researchers investigating John Paul II’s handling of abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Kraków?

At the moment, we only have documents from the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). These are documents of the communist state’s secret police (Security Service), including the files of informers. 

In addition, in the IPN there are files of investigations conducted against priests accused of sexual crimes, prosecution files and court files. They contain testimonies of victims, statements of the accused, witnesses, minutes of court hearings, and sentences. 

In some cases, it is possible to reconstruct the reaction of Church authorities. This is the case, for example, of two priests with whom Karol Wojtyła had dealings. And it can be seen from these documents that his reaction was appropriate.

The current debate about John Paul II’s record in Kraków focuses on his handling of the cases of three priests: Fr. Eugeniusz Surgent, Fr. Józef Loranca, and Fr. Bolesław Saduś.

The debate began with two articles that you wrote in Rzeczpospolita with Piotr Litka. The first, published in November 2022, addressed the case of Fr. Surgent.

What did you conclude about John Paul II’s handling of this case?

At the outset, I must make a clarification. Fr. Surgent was formally a clergyman of the Archdiocese of Lubaczów, who worked in the Archdiocese of Kraków. He was therefore subordinate to two bishops. The bishop of Lubaczów had the authority, for example, to punish, while the bishop of Kraków decided where the priest worked, but could dismiss him at any time. 

Surgent graduated from the seminary in the late 1950s. He was a conflicted man who did not work in any parish for too long. Until 1969, there is no trace of him sexually abusing children. Such information only appears in Milicja [national police] documents in October 1969. 

The Milicja intercepted a letter from the bishop of Lubaczów to him, in which the bishop admonished him for harming a child. The documents also show that the Kraków curia knew about it. But the matter was not known to the public. They acted correctly in this case: they restricted the priest’s ministry and informed the bishop of Lubaczów. In turn, the latter issued a warning.

In 1971, Surgent was transferred to a parish in Kiczory and committed crimes there. 

When the news of this reached Wojtyła, at the beginning of July 1973, he dismissed him from work in the Archdiocese of Kraków and placed him at the disposal of the bishop of Lubaczów. 

But in August, Surgent was taken into custody, then to prison, from which he was released in 1974. He then never worked in the Kraków archdiocese. 

Later we find him in the Koszalin-Kolobrzeg diocese, but the decision to move to another area was made separately from Wojtyła. It was an agreement between the bishops of Lubaczów and Koszalin-Kolobrzeg. 

We know from Milicja documents that Surgent committed crimes at the other end of Poland as well, but although the Milicja knew about it, he was not put on trial and jailed. There is no information that the bishop of Koszalin-Kolobrzeg had such knowledge.

In a second article, published in December 2022, you focused on Fr. Loranca. What was your conclusion?

This case is less complicated. The moment Wojtyła learned of what the priest had done, he immediately dismissed him from the parish, suspended him from the priesthood, and placed him in a monastery. This happened even before the police became interested in the case. 

At the monastery, the priest was arrested and went to prison. Upon his release, he was not restored to his normal work. His case was taken up by the bishop’s court. The judges decided that since he had already served his prison sentence, they would not punish him a second time for the same thing. 

Wojtyła suspended him and sent him to a parish in Zakopane, but without the right to teach children or hear confessions. The priest was placed in a monastery and kept busy transcribing liturgical books. 

He was kept in “reserve” for nearly four years — from the fall of 1971 to the spring of 1975. Then he was appointed chaplain at the hospital and was there for six years. He never returned to normal parish work.

On March 4, the Polish television channel TVN24 broadcast the documentary “Franciszkańska 3,” which accused John Paul II of transferring Fr. Saduś to Austria despite knowing that he had abused children. 

You wrote about this case in a March 17 article, in which you suggested that the documentary over-interpreted the evidence at crucial points.

Why did you come to this conclusion?

The documents in his case are of a different kind. They are primarily secret Milicja materials. They are not trial documents. They are therefore somewhat less reliable. 

What is known is that in mid-1972, some scandal broke out around this priest. The Milicja itself did not know what it was about. All that was known was that it was a sex-related scandal. 

The thesis that Saduś was a pedophile, and that Wojtyła was hiding it, cannot be made based on these documents. In no document do we encounter the age of the victims. Once it refers to young boys, another time it says they were adolescents. 

The sole note saying they were minors appears only in a document that was written six years after Saduś left Poland, shortly after Wojtyła became pope. The document was written at the request of the top leadership of the ministry, which was dedicated to fighting the Church. 

One can therefore posit the thesis that the communists were preparing for some kind of attack on John Paul II, and the pretext would be that he had covered up priests abusing children.

So far, four journalists have assessed the available documents: you and Piotr Litka, Marcin Gutowski of TVN24, and the Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, author of “Maxima culpa: John Paul II knew.” 

There has been widespread international coverage of Gutowski and Overbeek’s work. Why do you think that you haven’t received the same attention?

Because we care about getting to the truth, not seeking sensationalism. Our true version of events is favorable to John Paul II. It is not controversial.

And Gutowski and Overbeek’s theses are controversial and put John Paul II in a bad light. It is one big manipulation.

Is there archival material that could shed more light on the cases that hasn’t been released?

I think there is. I am positive about the decision of the bishops, who want to establish a commission to investigate these cases, not only in Kraków but throughout Poland. This is needed first and foremost for the victims who are waiting for justice. 

On the other hand, it is an open question at the moment about what has been preserved in the Church archives. Some moral issues were not written about, this information was not placed in the personal files of priests, for fear that it would fall into the hands of the communists, who would use it against the Church. 

I have already encountered such instances in other cases. In the curia, the information about the bishop’s punishment of a priest was not there, while in the Milicja documents, it was. However, a lot of inquiries and research are needed. 

I hope they will bring us closer to the truth.