Father Adam Zak attends the safeguarding conference in Warsaw  (EpiskopatNews) Father Adam Zak attends the safeguarding conference in Warsaw (EpiskopatNews) 

Protection of minors in the Church in Central & Eastern Europe

Over the past few days, representatives of the Bishops' Conferences from Central and Eastern Europe have gathered in Warsaw to confront the crisis of sexual abuse. Father Adam Żak, a member of the organizing committee, explains the socio-political and cultural situation that has affected the Church’s response in the region.

By Adam Żak, SJ

To present the Church’s response to the challenge of sexual abuse in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which up to three decades ago were either part of the Soviet Union or were under Communist regimes, I must refer more to direct experience rather than to written texts that deal with the topic. On various occasions, I have had direct contact including with those who were responsible for some of the Churches. The first occasion was during my service as regional assistant for Central and Eastern Europe and as councilor to two superiors general of the Society of Jesus (2003-2012). This service often involved visiting the countries of that region. Between 2014-2018, I participated regularly in workshops for representatives of the Roman and Greek Catholics of Central and Eastern Europe organized in Warsaw by the United States Bishops’ Conference Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. These workshops offered tools to Bishops and their collaborators to respond to the sexual abuse crisis. During these workshops, I was in contact with and shared experiences with participants from Albania, Belarus, Croatia, Kosovo, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Hungary. These, and other direct experiences in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Albania, reinforced my conviction that the Church in Central and Eastern Europe is in need of particular attention to deal with a crisis that, while not beginning there, nevertheless has been impacted by it because of the globalized world. Its involvement is independent of the number of cases that have come to light around the world. Whether we like it or not, this crisis that occurs in other parts of the world tests the faith of the people in this part of the world and threatens to undermine their trust in their pastors.

It is impossible to understand the reaction of the Church in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the crisis connected with the sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable persons committed by members of the Catholic clergy without considering the socio-political and cultural situation after the October Revolution was exported or even imported into societies already wounded by the two World Wars. The pastoral ministry of the Christian Churches and communities of every denomination were often subjected to cruel repression and severe limitations. Christian educational institutions and associations were suppressed everywhere and the religious formation of the young was prohibited or limited. Every Christian religious influence on the young had to be gradually eliminated. The culture promoted through every means toward the young was not neutral. It was not only secular, it was atheistic and anti-Christian. Simultaneously, the style of life fostered by the regime consciously sought to distance itself from the Western model that was presented in every possible way as hedonistic and dissolute – in short, decadent.

Fr. Zak (R) at the Warsaw conference
Fr. Zak (R) at the Warsaw conference

It goes without saying that such a policy in practice for decades strongly influenced the self-awareness of Christians in this part of Europe vis-à-vis their brothers and sisters in the faith on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Particularly when the media brought the horrible news regarding the scandals of the Church in the West, a sense of moral superiority rose up in many hearts that at the same time eliminated or at least weakened the perception of the risk factors that similar misdeeds could happen in their own surroundings. The Greek and Roman Churches, especially those that emerged from hiding in Czechoslovakia or Romania, in ex-Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Lithuania or Ukraine, were rightly proud of their martyrs, their Bishops and priests, (not a few of whom had been ordained secretly), men and women religious who risked everything to sustain the faith of the adults and to transmit it to the young. There were no schools or reformatories run by men or women religious. In some areas, it was lay men and women who ran the Church. Religious orders were prohibited. The exceptions were the Church in Poland and Croatia where the seminaries and novitiates that were open, only served to confirm the rule.

There was an unwritten but real rule within Catholic communities that “forbade” any criticism of the Church. This rule even imposed silence on eventual scandals. Behind this attitude there was also the painful experience of the exploitation of the scandalous behavior of some members of the clergy connected with the practice of recruiting secret collaborators for state intelligence entities. In the Catholic communities, priests enjoyed tremendous authority. In a society deprived of transparency and subjected to censure, secrecy was a mechanism adopted spontaneously without having been decreed by anyone, not to defend corrupt priests, but to assure a minimum of autonomy in a community of such vital importance even in view of the future rebirth of civil society.

In a society subjected to dictatorship, such types of behavior and self-defensive ways of reacting became habitual, or rather developed a mentality, that did not disappear with the fall of communism. There are still consequences that include the difficulties connected with dealing responsibly and transparently with the crisis related to the sexual abuse of minors. Such a mentality is also a risk factor in that it makes possible perpetrators feel more secure because they are protected by the silence that surrounds them. This mentality – nobly justified under the dictatorship – is none other than that of clericalism pointed out by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. While on the one hand, the exclusion or the forceful limitation of the institutional presence of the Church in those sectors where minors were involved, such as schools or reformatories, excluded certain places where possible sexual abuse by men and women in the Church could have occurred, on the other hand, it generated or reinforced other risk factors such as the protection of members of the clergy from the oversight of any authority through the practice of secrecy even when they were responsible for crimes against minors. Distrust of state institutions is also something inherited from the dictatorship. Under a democracy, this in fact, protects perpetrators because it obstructs or makes collaboration more difficult in areas such as the reporting and investigation of alleged crimes committed by members of the clergy. In this situation, it is easier to do anything to defend the Church’s public image than to respond transparently.

Since the fall of Communism, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have undergone complex transformative processes that also influence the style of life and the entire area of moral and social values related to sexuality, the family, politics, etc. Simply put, for the most part it can be said that, beginning with the early ’90s, the societies of Central and Eastern Europe have been experiencing the changes that the United States and the West in general lived through during the ’60s and ’70s. Sexuality under the Communist regime was taboo. Socialist morality was portrayed as progressive, but the “progress” connected with it was limited to very few things – limited access to abortion was probably the emblematic sign of this “progress”.

The sexual abuse of minors began to be scientifically studied in the United States beginning in the second half of the ’70s. Public opinion slowly began to consider it a social problem that needed to be addressed in its complexity as a phenomenon increasingly perceived as very serious, requiring a commitment to prevention in addition to legal action against criminals. Countries under Communist rule were focusing their attention on the aspirations of liberty and democracy, on the respect for the human rights of citizens and workers. Between the West and societies governed by the Communists, a gap had opened regarding priorities they needed to face. This does not mean that minors were not sexually abused in Central and Eastern Europe, or that they were not subject to various forms of violence. But it was not a topic of public discussion. Neither was it perceived as a social problem. It was completely hidden.

Violence, on the other hand, was present everywhere, beginning in state institutions, in families affected by the plague of alcoholism which – as we know – is one of the factors that increases the risk of the sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable persons. In such a situation, it was not surprising that society and, unfortunately individual Churches, did not consider the sexual abuse of minors as a priority. Even where the problem surfaced and the Church had to face it, it was unfortunately considered as if it were primarily a problem regarding the Catholic Church rather than society. It seems none of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe considered the sexual abuse of minors to be a social problem. Therefore, there were no strategies for various types of prevention promoted by the state or special agencies responsible for the protection of minors. Criminal law seems to have been the only reference.

This is the reason why the Church, which is committed to provide safe environments and to help those who have been wounded in the delicate area of their sexuality, can become a credible pioneer in the protection of minors and become a spokesperson for their rights. This opportunity has not yet been lost.

The political transformation marked the beginning or accelerated a complex process of transformation. This process, which is still unfolding, began to touch individual Churches in different ways and moments. The crisis caused by sexual abuse has particularly affected those countries with a Catholic majority, as can be seen in Poland, for example. If we do not learn from the errors made by other Churches, before an avalanche of cases come our way in the aftermath of media coverage, we must at least learn from the best practices adopted elsewhere and that are bearing good fruit in making the Church a safer place for children.

It is true that after the fall of Communism, the challenges facing civil society and the Churches have been and are still enormous. These must be measured against the changes and challenges in every area of life, the moral sphere included, that have been taking place very quickly and for which we were not prepared. The Churches in this region that emerged from hiding, with very limited human resources in as far as clergy are concerned, have received help from Churches near and far. Sometimes those who volunteered for these missions and – unfortunately were accepted – had human maturity issues, because the elaborate procedure applied on other continents for similar situations was not applied. It seems that we seldom learn anything from the experiences of others.

Therefore, this conference can be of great help in making the process of exchange and learning more effective and systematic.

Biography: Father Adam Żak is the current Director of the Child Protection Center at the Jesuit University "Ignatianum" in Krakow and Coordinator for Child and Youth Protection with the Polish Bishops' Conference.

21 September 2021, 14:30