Church was “naive” over child sex abuse, says Polish bishop after report indicates 1,000 victims

Notes from Poland [Kraków, Poland]

May 19, 2023

By Daniel Tilles

One of Poland’s most senior bishops has apologised for neglect in how the country’s Catholic church dealt with child sex abuse by priests in the past, after a new report indicated over 1,000 victims during the communist period

Wojciech Polak – who is archbishop of Gniezno and primate of Poland – claimed that the church had “often been naive in dealing with these crimes”. However, he also noted that the communist authorities exploited the issue to blackmail priests into collaborating.

Yesterday, Rzeczpospolita, a leading newspaper, published what it claimed to be the first research of its type looking at reports of abuse linked to the church in communist-era archives.

Its findings pointed to over 1,000 children being abused by members of the clergy or lay employees of the church in the period 1944-1989. The newspaper notes that this number is just the “tip of the iceberg” because only a small proportion of such crimes would have been recorded.

It published a detailed list of 121 such cases its journalists found in the archives, with those crimes committed by 117 priests and two lay employees. In 72 instances, the cases ended with convictions.

However, among clergy who committed the identified crimes, only three were removed from the priesthood while a a few others left of their own accord. “The rest returned to work – and some committed crimes in further parishes,” notes Rzeczpospolita.

Meanwhile, some priests avoided punishment by the civil authorities in exchange for cooperating with the secret police, found the newspaper. The communists were keen to infiltrate the church, which was a large and influential institution and also often a sanctuary for opponents of the regime.

Commenting on Rzeczpospolita’s findings, Polak – who is the Polish episcopate’s delegate for the protection of children and youth – said it is “shameful that for decades we did not see the [victims’] suffering. Once again, I want to apologise for that”.

“We were also often naive in dealing with the perpetrators of these crimes,” he added. “At the same time, it is shocking how often the wellbeing of children was disregarded by the services of the totalitarian state, and their suffering was also used to draw the perpetrators into cooperation with the security services.”

Polak argued that the church today holds a very different outlook. “We take action to accept and listen to those harmed, and to provide them with help, primarily psychological and spiritual,” he said, pointing to a recent campaign launched by the episcopate offering support to victims.

The archbishop also noted that the church is currently in the process of preparing a study to be undertaken by independent researchers into historical abuse of children by priests.

This “will help the church in Poland to deal honestly with the past, taking into account the historical and social context”, which in turn can “rebuild the trust and credibility necessary for our mission”, said Polak.

The church in Poland has in recent years been hit by a series of revelations regarding abuse of children by members of the clergy – in the communist period but also after 1989 – and neglect by their superiors in dealing with the issue. The Vatican has disciplined a number of Polish bishops for their failings.

This year has seen controversy over allegations that the late Polish Pope John Paul II was, while archbishop of Kraków, negligent in dealing with cases of abuse by priests under his authority. However, many, including Poland’s conservative government, have disputed the claims.