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File photo of Father Piotr Studnicki File photo of Father Piotr Studnicki 

Church in Poland and protection of minors: from unprepared to informed

Both the Church and society in Poland were unprepared to face the crisis caused by the sexual abuse of minors. Negative reactions prevailed at first. In the last few years, thanks to journalists and clear direction from the Holy See, the Church in Poland has learned how to create an integrated structure for the protection of minors and the support of victims.

By Marta Titaniec and Father Piotr Studnicki

The Church in Poland entered the 21st century feeling proud of itself, enjoying the success it had achieved. These sentiments were motivated by Poland’s past and more recent history. Up until 1918, the Polish state had vanished, being divided up by neighboring powers for a good 123 years. For the Polish people, the Catholic Church had been a bulwark of freedom and had contributed toward the survival of the nation’s language, culture, and even its hope for independence. Heroic deeds performed by many Catholic priests and lay faithful were not lacking in the period following the Second World War. After 1945, when Poland fell under the Soviet Union’s influence, the Church was near to the people, seeking to preserve their autonomy and fighting for human dignity and rights.

It was in this context that Karol Wojtyła – Pope Saint John Paul II – was raised. His pilgrimages to Poland contributed to the spiritual reawakening of his compatriots, stimulating the growth of a sense of national unity and reinforcing the Church’s role in the life of Polish society. In Europe, a process of secularization had been in act for many decades. Yet, Poland remained a country in which the number of baptized constituted more than 90% of the population. Half of them were practicing Catholics, and the seminaries were filled with candidates for the priesthood. The moral authority of the priest was unquestionable in Polish society.

This legitimate sense of success and pride made it difficult to truthfully face the abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy. In fact, it was difficult to admit, to grasp that such terrible crimes against minors could have happened in the same Church. Therefore, the first reports about the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy produced an instinctive defensive reaction among both priests and laity in Poland. It was interpreted as an attack by the enemy – the media – and the umpteenth expression of a battle against the Church, all too well-known under Communism.

Necessary catalysts toward change

News reports of the two Polish priests working in the Dominican Republic (the Apostolic Nuncio and a missionary, accused of sexually molesting a minor in 2013) dealt a tremendous blow. The documentaries published on YouTube by the Sekielski brothers, on the other hand, were truly an earthquake (“Tell no One”, 2019; “Playing Hide and Seek”, 2020). Today, it must honestly be acknowledged that journalists contributed a fundamental element that mobilized the Church in Poland to deal with the issue.

No less important were the actions taken by the Holy See and other transformations taking place throughout the Catholic Church that influenced the Church in Poland’s approach to the sexual abuse of minors. One example is the history of the publication of the document defining the rules governing the diocesan process to be followed in Poland when priests were accused of sexual abuse. The first edition of the document was approved by the Polish Bishops’ Conference back in 2009. However, it was kept confidential and not made public. It was only in response to the recommendation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011 that the Polish Bishops’ Conference adopted and published two documents in 2014 that to this day outline the course of action for the Church in Poland.

A second example concerns those persons responsible for the protection of minors tasked to receive reports. Even though people had been appointed to these positions by the bishops and superiors general of religious institutes by the end of 2014, in the following years, the information regarding how to contact them still had yet to be published on the official websites of many dioceses and religious institutes. The publication of this information became a general practice only in 2019 with the publication of Pope Francis’ Motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.

Shameful statistics

Toward the end of 2018, the Polish Bishops’ Conference (KEP) decided to complete the first statistical analysis begun in 2014. The report, covering the period from 1 January 1990 to 30 June 2018, published in March 2019 that 382 diocesan and religious priests had been accused of sexual abuse against children under the age of 18. It also revealed that from 1950 to mid 2018, the Church knew that at least 661 minors had been sexually abused. Furthermore, the report demonstrated that the number of cases being reported had increased over the years. But, the real wave of revelations came to the fore in a successive report published in June 2021. During the 2 ½ period under review (1 July 2018 – 31 December 2020) 368 reports had been received against 292 diocesan and religious priests regarding events that took place between 1958-2020.

Presenting the report, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Primate of Poland and the Episcopal Conference’s Delegate for the protection of minors, spoke directly to the victims and the scandalized public regarding the evils that had been perpetrated in the Church, once again begging their forgiveness. One of the things he said was: “Listening to the stories of people who have been traumatized by the sexual abuse perpetrated by religious and diocesan priests, on the one hand we feel tremendous shame, immense pain and compassion. On the other, we are grateful and we express our respect for those who have decided to report the evil they underwent by revealing their own traumatic stories, often after many years”.

A support system under construction

“The investigation carried out also demonstrates that the Church, in which these evils once took place, has now become a place of listening and support, one that seeks the truth and justice”, the Polish archbishop added.

The Polish Bishops’ Conference established an office for the protection of minors in 2013 and appointed of Father Adam Żak SJ, as its first coordinator. Thanks to the projects he initiated, the Church succeeded in developing a structure, both at the local and national levels, for the protection of minors and to provide help to the sexual abuse victims. Structures at the local level are key because they are active in the dioceses and in the provinces of religious institutes. These structures include:

(1)   116 delegates authorized to receive reports regarding abuse, to initiate those processes required by Church and civil law, to help the victims receive psychological, legal and pastoral aid;

(2)   70 pastors whose duty it is to offer pastoral aid and spiritual support to the victims, their families and the communities affected by the scandal, and to collaborate in the preparation of the annual day of prayer and penance for the sin of the sexual abuse of minors;

(3)   86 curators who accompany the accused priest so that he understands and observes the prescribed restrictions and, in the case of an eventual conviction, they help him toward a change in life style so that he does not hurt anyone else;

(4)   Others responsbile for prevention.

These local structures are supported by, reinforced, monitored and developed at the national level, composed of:

(1)  Episcopal Conference Delegate for the protection of minors (as of March 2019, Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Primate of Poland), responsible for the canonical, legal, organizational and communication aspects;

(2)  Episcopal Conference Coordinator for the protection of minors (as of June 2013, Father Adam Żak SJ), who oversees the above-mentioned structures in place;

(3)  The Saint Joseph Foundation, established in October 2019, and financed with the annual contributions of priests and bishops so as to provide monetary aid to victims of sexual abuse, as well as supporting the structures in place;

(4)  The Child Protection Center, founded in March 2014 at the Ignatianum Academy in Krakow, supports the structures in place for the protection of minors through educational, scientific and preventive activities with the aim of creating safe environments for minors.

Implementing Vos estis lux mundi

Recently, the Church in Poland has begun to implement the Motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, promulgated by Pope Francis. From the time it entered into force, over 12 processes have been initiated, reviewing the response of various Polish Bishops to reports their received of sexual abuse. Twelve of these processes have already been closed, 11 of which resulted in the confirmation that the bishop was negligent, with the bishops received penal sanctions. The charges in one case were dismissed, while other processes are still in course.

However painful and difficult for the Church in Poland, the process of purification is moving forward. Many people feel offended, not only because of the evil that has been done, but – often even more – because of the approach taken by Church leaders. Only by affirming the truth, seeking justice and taking responsibility for all the crimes and negligence in the Church’s response, can the Church in Poland halt the process through which its trust and credibility has been lost.

Biographies: Marta Titaniec – President of the Board of Administrators of the St Joseph Foundation of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, co-foundress of the “Hurt in the Church” initiative [Zranieni w Kościele], a helpline for persons affected by sexual violence in the Church.

Dr. Piotr Studnicki, priest – Director of the Office for the Delegate of the Polish Bishops’ Conference for the Protection of Children, professor of the Pontifical John Paul II University in Krakow and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

22 September 2021, 14:30