By Devin Watkins
As the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors holds a conference in the Polish capital of Warsaw, the painful history of Eastern and Central Europe is coming to the fore.
Much of the region suffered for decades under the iron fist of communism and the Soviet Union.
Throughout those years, the Church in many countries was seen as a stronghold against oppression.
Now, thirty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, another side of that history is showing its face, as the Church seeks to root out the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.
The conference being held in Warsaw, from Sunday until Wednesday, is helping the Church in Central and Eastern Europe confront the past and move forward by safeguarding her most vulnerable members. The overriding theme under consideration is “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children”.
False: Abuse only ‘a Western problem’
Professor Hannah Suchocka is one of the organizers of the Warsaw safeguarding conference, a former Prime Minister of Poland and former Polish Ambassador to the Holy See.
Speaking to Vatican News, she described the role history plays in the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis.
“In many countries, even in Poland, even ten years ago,” said Prof. Suchocka, “it was common thinking that pedophilia and sexual abuse are typical only for Western churches, not in the East, because the churches under the communist regime were under oppression and so were no place for sexual abuse.”
Other side of the coin
Now however, she added, it has become clear that clerical sexual abuse took place in Eastern bloc nations, not only in those in the West.
She said recent decisions taken by the Holy See regarding “famous Bishops who played important roles during the time of communism” show that abuse by members of the clergy did indeed take place in the Church.
“Suddenly,” said Prof. Suchocka, “we can see the other side of their behavior. They were very active in fighting against communism, offering help to the opposition, but on the other hand they were also responsible for sexual abuses, whether they covered it up or were involved themselves.”
She said this situation presents a challenge for the Polish Catholic Church, as well as for the Church throughout the region. “We were also sinners,” she said. “We were not only saints.”
Offering clear answers
Yet, past performance is not necessarily a hindrance to future success.
Prof. Suchocka said the time has come for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe to make “a clean break” with past moral behavior.
The Church in former communist countries, she noted, needs to offer “clear solutions to the question: ‘What can we do in our countries?’”
Efforts to build up Church, not tear her down
Though Prof. Suchocka, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and local Church leaders are making great strides in rooting out clerical sexual abuse, some Catholics see their efforts as “an attack on the Church.”
Prof. Suchocka lamented this view and said the Commission’s effort are aimed at healing the Church and helping victims of sexual abuse.
“We are not against the Church,” she insisted. “We would like to do something for the Church, because otherwise the Church will end up in the shadows and not ‘confront’ (affrontare: using an Italian verb) the situation.”