Vatican hands over files of priest accused of abuse to Polish court for first time

Notes from Poland [Kraków, Poland]

March 29, 2023

The Vatican has for the first time handed over to a Polish court the case file of a former priest on trial for child sex abuse. The move came after the local Polish archbishop informed the judge that he was unable to make the documents available himself.

The transfer of the material took place in autumn last year, when the Vatican handed the 200 pages of documents over to the Polish embassy. But it was only reported yesterday for the first time by the Gazeta Wyborcza daily because the trial of the former priest is being conducted behind closed doors.

The files pertain to ecclesiastical proceedings against the accused, who can be named only as Krzysztof G. under Polish privacy law. They reportedly include his written confession of guilt and a subsequent decree removing him from the clergy.

Krzysztof G. is currently on trial in a state court for the same accusations of sexually abusing an altar boy, Szymon Bączkowski, beginning when he was aged 15, reports TVN24. In this case, however, the former priest has pleaded not guilty.

The victim first came forward in 2015, notifying the church authorities after a suggestion by a confessor. When he found out that the priest was still in contact with children, he also notified the public prosecutor’s office.

In its own proceedings, the church confirmed the priest’s guilt and punished him. In the decree concluding the ecclesiastical trial, the archbishop of Poznań, Stanisław Gądecki, emphasised the perpetrator’s high probability of recidivism and “lack of credible willingness to undertake therapy”.

However, it later emerged that, just one month after removing him from the priesthood, Poznań diocese re-employed Krzysztof G. as an archivist.

Although Bączkowski was the victim and had informed the church authorities himself, he was not treated as a party to the ecclesiastical case, had no access to the case files, and no right to challenge the judgment. He says he only learned that his abuser had pleaded guilty from one of Gądecki’s close associates.

Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the parallel state trial of Krzysztof G. sought to obtain the files from the church proceedings. But Gądecki – who as well as being archbishop of Poznań is also the head of Poland’s Catholic episcopate – said that he had sent the file to the Vatican and not retained a copy.

Access to the file was first sought from the Archbishop by the prosecutor, but, according to the newspaper, “he was stopped by his superiors”; later, the judge presiding over the case tried to obtain it. Archbishop Gądecki argued that he had sent the documents to the Vatican and had not kept a copy.

Gazeta Wyborcza reports that the judge did not believe this explanation and threatened to order a police search of the Poznań curia. However, in the end the files were obtained from the Vatican after Gądecki undertook to ask the papal nuncio in Poland to make them available and the judge herself wrote to the Holy See

As well as Krzysztof G.’s confession, the documents reportedly include witness statements from other priests. However, Bączkowski believes that some of the files from the ecclesiastical proceedings are missing.

“This shows that the Church is still trying to protect the perpetrator,” Bączkowski said. “I am glad, however, that my case paves the way. Maybe in the case of other paedophile priests, the courts will also start demanding documents from the Church.”

Bączkowski’s attorney, Artur Nowak, also called the handover of the documents “precedent-setting”, although he struck a more reserved tone.

“This is not a full opening of the archives – the Polish church is far behind the German or French churches. It also retains full control over church investigations of paedophile priests,” said Nowak. “Secrecy is still the rule.”

In response to accusations that Gądecki had refused to hand over the files to the court, the Catholic Information Agency (KAI) – which is run by the Polish episcopate – reported that the archibshop had in fact complied with the proper legal process for documents that had already been transferred to the Vatican.

The Catholic church in Poland has in recent years been hit by a series of revelations regarding historical cases of child sex abuse by priests and of alleged cover-ups by their superiors.

Most recently, journalistic investigations have accused former Pope John Paul II of allowing priests to continue working despite knowing that they had abused children when he was Bishop Karol Wojtyła of Kraków.

Defenders of the late pope – including the ruling Law and Justice party – argue that the new claims are unreliable because they are based in part on communist-era security files. However, critics note that the Polish church has not made its own such files available to researchers.