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Paedophilia, Catholicism 

and the future of Poland’s faith

Berenika Balcer, Lancaster University Graduate

Zero tolerance for paedophilia - says the official position of the Polish Catholic Church. Meanwhile, during the demonstration “Hands off children – stop paedophilia in the Church!”, Maria Bąk-Ziółkowska emphasised that the problem lies in the Church hiding the paedophile priests. Nevertheless, the question is not only whether there should be an institutional solution at the nation state level but also, how the unprecedented crisis in one of Poland’s most important institutions will impact the understanding of faith.

The printed media has repeatedly reported on the cases of sexual abuse among the priests. Yet, it was a documentary, crowdfunded and published on YouTube that shocked the faithful in one of Europe’s most devout nations. “Tell No One” by Siekielski brothers, followed the launch of “Clergy” by Wojciech Smarzowski, which led to an uproar in Poland for its rather unflattering presentation of the weaknesses and failings of the clergy.

For an institution that has been perceived as central to Polish identity and one of the few sources of continuity in the country’s turbulent history. The rapidly growing number of accusations puts it in a rather painful position. Yet, more than 85% of Poles identify as Catholic. Moreover, the perception of the priests as someone that is unable to do anything “bad” lives on. “They presented themselves as representatives of Christ himself, thus children alone decided not to talk about the abuse” says Matthias Katch, co- creator of German organisation “Ending Clergy Abuse”.

While the Catholic Church remains stronger in Poland than in majority of other European countries, there are signs that its power is beginning to fade. A Pew Research Centre study found that Poland has the largest intergenerational gap in church attendance of any of the countries surveyed. When it comes to statement “religion is very important”, only 30% of Poles declares so, while the world average is 54%.

Radosław Michalski, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence stated that, some of the reasons for the emerging decline reflect those in western Europe – a progressing lack of respect for elites and a shift towards more permissive attitudes on questions of morality. Also, after two centuries of being at the heart of the battle for Polish independence, the Church is now struggling to adapt to Poland that has emerged after 1989.

Dividing Polish society

Tadeusz Rydzyk branded the accusations as “a fight with the Church aimed at its destruction”. Ryszard Legutko, an MEP from the ruling party, Law and Justice, dismissed it as “an attack on the Right”. Also, Marek Gizmajerk from the Catholic Association of Journalists stated that: Siekielski’s film is a manipulation that fits into a bigger “anti-Polish campaign” as an attempt of destroying Poland that is to begin with the destruction of the Church. Meanwhile, the Polish primate, Archbishop Polak, apologised for “every wound inflicted by people of the Church” and promised to set up a fund to help those affected.

Liberal politicians have used the public outcry to call for the separation of Church and state with many opposition leaders demanding a public inquiry. Under pressure to act Law and Justice rushed through tougher sentences for child abuse, however, still unwilling to single out the Church.

The number of paedophiles found in the male population at large is usually put at around 4%. Yet, the Australian Royal Commission on child sex abuse by Catholic priests suggests the figure in clerical ranks is 7%. However, an idea of dealing with this “human problem”, as Pope Francis put it out, at the nation state level causes fear among the Polish faithful as it could give basics for social changes such as the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage. Yet, the Church has a big problem to deal with.

A report published by Polish Church authorities identified cases of abuse by 382 priests, involving 625 children, between 1990 and 2018 – a figure said to be vastly understated. Father Lemański, calls the report “an empty shell” as the Church has also been criticised for moving abusive priests from one parish to another instead of expelling or referring them to the police.

Another problem is that when a new priest comes to a new parish, he has no obligation to warn anyone about committing sexual abuse in the past. The Church itself within its inner organisational structure hasn’t created a document that would order to do so. Nevertheless, the Polish Episcopacy states it has implemented procedures for protection of minors. However, Matthias Katch agrees that it is impossible to make a top-bottom revolution as it simply wouldn’t work. “First the mentality has to change and then the regulations. That way the changes will be deep and real, and not staged”.

Possible solutions

First of all, the child sexual abusers among the clergy in 95% are not paedophiles in the medical sense – they don’t have sex drive towards children; and in that sense they cannot be hospitalised. The problem is then that a priest, like any other human, is a sexual being but because of his job he is forbidden to express his sexuality. And some of them start to fulfil that drive. A priest starts to look for a way to express his sexuality among those he spends time with every day, leading to child molestation.

However, in the Protestant Church, where there is no celibacy, there are clearly fewer cases of child molestation. Also, even the Vatican’s own newspaper, “L’Osservatore Romano”, has suggested that the absence of women in leadership roles can play a part. Statistically, women are less likely to sexually abuse children. Nevertheless, many call for the immediate end of the moral failure among clergy, which will involve rethinking an entire approach to sexuality in Catholicism. However, Katch argues whether the arguments given above have more significance than the lack of any kind of information system and of penalisation of the violators in the Church.

The example of Germany shows that firm reaction of the state can help in solving the issue as firstly the mode of proceedings has to be established, and it requires the state with its structures. There is no difference whether an institution is a business or Church – an adequate management leads to the elimination of a number of disadvantageous situations in any kind of institution. Hence - if the firm state’s reaction is effective, would a renunciation of the Concordat by Poland, which guarantees the Church with confidentiality within its structures, increase the chances of eradicating the issue?

The state of faith

Siekielski comments his documentary by stating that: a healthy balance between the Church and the state is necessary. While Father Guzyński worries that if nothing would change within both the institution of Church and mentality of some clergy, it will lead to loss of the society’s trust.

Yet, the recent studies of Polish Central Statistical Office indicate that religiousness of most Poles is rather ritual than spiritual. An average Pole baptises his child but disagrees with the Church regarding its views on abortion. Also, in the Church understood more broadly than only an institution, there is already a rapidly developing bottom-up formation of a ‘believer’s community’ which is as shocked with the evil in the Church as the atheists. If they start organising, they could become a crucial force changing the course of events.

The whole Church is not being accused here, yet the Church as an institution is answerable to the victims of sexual molestation. It is a false circle for many representatives of the clergy to say that it is not the Church that is responsible but a specific person. Church authorities in Poland have yet to reach a consensus on how to deal with the issue. Whether with help of the state or not, it is within the structures and organisation of the Church, where the very reason for repeating acts of child molestation can be found. If nothing changes in that matter, the crisis is going to deepen along with the question of the future of Polish faith.