Will a Documentary Take Down the Polish Government?

A film exposing sex abuse by Catholic priests also exposes the corrupting ties between the church and the ruling political party.

People in Krakow, Poland, at a screening of “Tell No One.” Credit Omar Marques/SOPA/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Following sexual-abuse scandals in the United States, Britain, Ireland and Australia, it seems that the Roman Catholic Church may be on the verge of a similar catastrophe in Poland. But whereas the blowback from previous scandals has been largely confined to the church itself, this latest crisis could take down the country’s right-wing government as well — and undermine the tight grip the church holds over Polish society.

With just weeks to go before the European parliamentary elections — which in Poland will serve as a kind of opening act for its own parliamentary elections this fall — the country has been gripped by a shocking documentary exposing widespread child sexual abuse by Polish priests, and the subsequent cover up by the church.

Released on YouTube, “Tell No One,” by the well-known journalist Tomasz Sekielski, was viewed 10 million times in the first two days. The priests involved include the personal chaplain of Lech Walesa, the Solidarity hero, who initially refused to believe the story, but ultimately condemned the cleric.

The problem of pedophilia is well illustrated by the story of Father Pawel Kania, one of the subjects of the film. He was detained by church authorities in 2005 for attempting to seduce children and possessing child pornography. But instead of punishing him or turning him over to the authorities, the church relocated him to a parish in the city of Bydgoszcz — where he was, amazingly, tasked with working with children

In 2010, a court found Father Pawel guilty of possessing child pornography. Two years later, the priest was found in a hotel room with a boy and arrested. In 2015, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for rape and child molestation. Earlier this year, the church finally expelled him from the priesthood.

The film quotes a letter from an altar boy in the Bydgoszcz parish where Father Pawel worked. The priest would take him on weekend trips, where he would rape him. “He would threaten me. ‘Don’t tell anyone, or I’ll tell your parents everything,’ ” the boy writes. “If you don’t come with me, I’ll take your brother.’” The author of the letter agreed to go on a trip to the Canary Islands to protect his younger brother from the pedophile priest. “I defended myself, I tried to push him away, but he was stronger.” He said that Father Pawel “laughed at my resistance. He laughed at my helplessness.”

The influence of the Catholic Church in Poland is immense — almost 40 percent of the population attends Mass weekly. And it is politically connected, particularly on the right: The church enjoys significant financial privileges from the state, while the ruling Law and Justice party benefits from the support of Catholic media outlets and church sermons. The strength of the church is the strength of Law and Justice, and a crisis in the church is a crisis for Law and Justice.

Law and Justice is also implicated in the abuse cover-ups. One of the party’s best-known figures, Stanislaw Piotrowicz, made his name in 2001, when as a prosecutor in the town of Krosno he dismissed a case against a priest accused of raping six girls. Mr. Piotrowicz argued, “The priest confirmed that he took children into his lap, children would run up to him during catechism, they would hug him, he, too, would hug them, caress them, he sometimes kissed them. The children were happy, they were content. There was no sexual subtext.” After the case was transferred to a different jurisdiction, the priest was convicted.

Mr. Piotrowicz, meanwhile, received a medal from Archbishop Jozef Michalik, who expressed compassion for the convicted priest and accused the media of trampling the truth and displaying hostility toward the church. He encouraged the faithful to maintain their trust in the clergyman. As he said of the victims, “A child clings to you, it searches and loses itself and draws the other person in.”

As he rose through the political ranks, Mr. Piotrowicz became one of the architects of the legal “reforms” supported by Law and Justice, hamstringing the Constitutional Tribunal and removing judges from the Supreme Court. He became a furious red baiter, shouting “down with Communism!” from the rostrum, although as a Communist prosecutor in the 1980s he convicted opposition leaders under martial law.

Naturally, Law and Justice has pushed back hard against Mr. Sekielski’s documentary. One member of Parliament, Zbigniew Gryglas, compared it to “Mein Kampf.” Deputy Speaker Ryszard Terlecki asserted that it was part of a conspiracy to influence the upcoming elections (though he also boasted that he has not seen the film). Church leaders called it “nonsense” and “old fairy tales.”

At the same time, the government has announced a bill to increase penalties for pedophilia, though the bill must first by considered by a committee chaired by none other than Stanislaw Piotrowicz.

With many thanks to: The New York Times and Slawomir Sierakawski for the original story

Slawomir Sierakowski
By Slawomir Sierakowski
Mr. Sierakowski is the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy

Follow this link to find out more and also to watch this documentary: https://cruxnow.com/church-in-europe/2019/05/17/polish-church-wrestles-with-sex-abuse-after-youtube-documentary/#