Polish Church condemns abuse charges against John Paul II

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

March 15, 2023

By Jonathan Luxmoore

Liberal politicians have demanded that St John Paul II’s name be removed from streets and schools across his homeland.

Polish Church leaders have reacted angrily to new claims that St John Paul II covered up sexual abuse by clergy while serving as Archbishop of Krakow before his papal election, and vowed to “defend his good name”.  

“We owe Poland’s freedom and the freedom of our consciences to St John Paul II – he was like our compass in the midst of a historical storm, and he would want the truth from us today, established by in-depth research, not unreliable media reports,” Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the bishops’ conference, declared in a statement on Sunday.

“I can testify that no one felt the suffering and dignity of human beings with such sensitivity, and I declare once again that the Church in Poland will continue to help wounded people with the same care. But we will also persistently defend John Paul II’s good name.” 

The Poznan archbishop was reacting to allegations against the late Polish pontiff last week in a commercial TV programme and separate book. 

Meanwhile, Poland’s former Catholic primate said St John Paul II had responded to problems in line with Gospel and church traditions, setting “high requirements that did not suit everyone”, adding that it was an anachronism and “falsification of truth” to judge his intentions or “apply contemporary restrictive recommendations” to a past era. 

“No one contributed more than St John Paul II to changing reality in Poland, Europe and the world,” said 89-year-old Archbishop Henryk Muszynski.

“Faced with this latest highly publicised anti-church campaign, directed primarily against him, I see the strange mystery of evil which contradicts the Gospel and is aimed at those who clearly rise above mediocrity.”

The programme, Franciszkanska 3, named after the Pope’s former Krakow residence and made by director Marcin Gutowski, aired last week on TVN24, a US-owned private channel.

Two days later a book, Maxima Culpa, was published by Ekke Overbeek, a young Dutch journalist living in the southern city.

Both claimed to have uncovered proof the then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla knowingly concealed clerical abuse while heading the archdiocese in 1964-1978, notably by three local priests, one of whom, Fr Boleslaw Sadus, was transferred to Austria in 1972 by agreement with Cardinal Franz Koenig (1905-2004). 

Catholic historians have criticised Gutowski and Overbeek for relying on files kept by Poland’s communist secret police, without cross-checking them with other archives, and for trying to apply modern procedures and practices retrospectively to communist-era conditions. 

The claims were criticised by premier Mateusz Morawiecki and rejected in a resolution last week by Poland’s Sejm lower house, which condemned the “shameful media campaign” against the late pontiff, and said it would not “allow the image of a man whom the whole free world recognises as a pillar of victory” to be destroyed.

However, liberal and left-wing politicians have demanded that St John Paul II’s name be removed from streets and schools across his homeland, while officials in his southern hometown staged protests and prayers at the weekend after an online magazine, Krytyka Polityczna, branded him “the beast of Wadowice”.

Among other reactions, the Vatican’s outgoing nuncio to Warsaw, Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, told Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, he felt “very hurt personally” by the hostility shown towards the late Pope, adding that Poles should “feel extremely proud” that their country had “produced such an outstanding figure”. 

Speaking at the weekend, Archbishop Grzegorz Rys of Lodz said he had no doubt St John Paul’s name would be cleared by “any serious, decent historical research”, adding that the rest of the world would see Poles as “complete lunatics” for attacking such a major national figure.

Meanwhile the former postulator for John Paul II’s sainthood, Stanislaw Oder, who was installed last Saturday as Bishop of Gliwice, told the KAI agency no one had spoken out more loudly on “the need to cleanse the Church of pedophilia crimes”.

He said he believed the latest attacks on his authority should be viewed “in the context of an eternal struggle between good and evil”.

Born at Wadowice in May 1920, John Paul II died after a 26-year pontificate in April 2005 in Rome, where he was beatified in May 2011 and canonised in April 2014.

Questions have been raised about his handling of sexual abuse claims as Pope against Catholic clergy, including Marcial Maciel Degollado (1920-2008), Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned in 2013 amid sexual immorality allegations.

In November 2020, a 460-page Vatican report exposed errors of judgement in the Pope’s promotion of the disgraced US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 for sexual crimes and also spurred attacks on the pontiff by anti-clerical groups in Poland, which faces parliamentary elections in the autumn.

Although the Polish Church has taken steps to combat clerical paedophilia over the past decade, with 11 mostly retired bishops and archbishops sanctioned for perpetrating or ignoring abuse, some Catholics have urged the country’s bishops to set up an independent commission to study the problem, similar to those in France and Portugal.