Claudia Ciobanu / Warsaw / August 26, 2020
While the Polish authorities focus on fighting an imagined threat to children from what they call the “LGBT lobby”, progress on combating pedophilia inside the Catholic Church, a well-documented phenomenon, remains slow.
Afew days after receiving her first communion in May last year, nine-year-old Julia told her mother she was sick and refused to go to church for further ceremonies planned in relation to this key moment in a Catholic family’s life.
“When I asked her why she didn’t want to go, she said she didn’t like the priest. When I asked her why, she said the priest was touching her,” Magda, Julia’s mother, told BIRN, speaking on the phone from Ruszow, a village of about 2,000 people in south-west Poland where the family lives.
According to the girl’s testimony, which experts verified as authentic as part of subsequent court proceedings, the local priest, Piotr M., had put his hands under her clothes and touched her in intimate areas.
“Lately, there had been signs something was wrong. It was impossible to get her a medical check-up as she would cry hysterically; we went three times and we didn’t manage it. And when we played with dolls at home, she protected them from having their clothes exchanged – and this is something we used to play all the time,” Magda said.
The mother complained to the police immediately and the prosecutor’s office initiated an investigation soon after.
“It turned out that the priest was picking her up from school during religion classes, with the excuse of having to do preparation for the first communion,” explained the mother, adding she was never asked for permission or informed by the school about the practice. “He [the priest] would take her to his house and this is where it was all happening. We have no idea how this could be possible.”
Julia also told her mother that the priest would sometimes take her back home together with a classmate. That young girl’s mother, upon speaking to her daughter, learned that her own child had been molested by Piotr M. Both girls have been diagnosed with mild intellectual disabilities and the mothers believe the priest may have singled them out, thinking they would not be trusted if they spoke out.
“I think it happened many times, maybe even from September, when school started, all the way to May,” Magda said. “The priest was so good in building our trust, he spoke to the kids in a very nice manner and encouraged them to take part in activities.”
Piotr M.’s case, while shocking, is sadly not unusual in Poland, where hundreds of Catholic priests have been accused of pedophilia, with over one hundred convicted so far in court, according to a map of the cases created by the victims’ rights group, Do Not Be Afraid. According to a 2019 report by the Polish Episcopal Conference, the central organ of the country’s Catholic Church, 382 complaints against priests over sexual molestation were filed with the Church between 1990 and 2018.
Artur Nowak, a lawyer who has supported victims in tens of cases, including Magda’s, told BIRN that these numbers are underestimates and there are probably thousands of cases of pedophilia among priests in Poland, many of which will likely never come to light.
A documentary about church pedophilia called “Tell No One”, produced by brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski and released online in May last year, caused an uproar in Poland by showing how the leadership of the Polish Catholic Church had been for decades burying cases, particularly by taking the priests in question out of the dioceses and reappointing them in new locations – a particularly dangerous practice, as the priests can start abusing children anew in places where no one knows them or their history.
Public pressure after the release of the documentary, which was seen by millions within days of its release, forced both the Polish Catholic Church and the country’s political leaders to pledge to take action, but a follow-up film by the Sekielskis released in May this year points to any progress being marginal at best.
Convicted but free
In spring, Piotr M. was convicted for sexually molesting the two girls in Ruszow and sentenced to five years in prison. During the proceedings, the court heard from more than ten adults who recounted having been molested by the same priest during the 1980’s while he worked in the city of Wroclaw. While those crimes are past the statute of limitations, the testimonies helped persuade the judge that the priest had been sexually abusing children following a familiar pattern: he would take the children away for preparations for their first communion, make them sit on his lap, and then undress, kiss and touch them in a sexual manner.
“If the Church had done something at the time, 30 years ago when this was happening, my daughter wouldn’t be suffering as she is today,” said Magda, adding that Julia still has periods when she refuses to eat and drink despite receiving psychological support for the past year.
Upon hearing the court verdict, the bishop supervising Piotr M.’s work banned the priest from returning to the Ruszow church. Nevertheless, the priest has since appealed the ruling of the first instance court and, until the appeal is judged, he is out on bail.
According to Magda as well as local media reports, the priest was spotted returning to Ruszow upon his release in early August. “I am not planning to send Julia back to school when the new year starts in September, I have already arranged with the school for her to have classes privately,” Magda said. “I am terrified that he is walking around freely and can meet her any time.”
Artur Nowak, Magda’s lawyer, said they are filing a request to extend Piotr M.’s restraining order to a distance big enough to exclude his presence in Ruszow altogether.
In response to a BIRN question about the whereabouts of the priest, Priest Jozef Lisowski from the Legnica diocese, under whose jurisprudence Ruszow belongs, reiterated that the bishop had banned Piotr M. from conducting mass, wearing priest garments or being present in the Ruszow parish as well as seven other parishes in the surrounding area.
“As for what local and other media write, we have no impact on that and they take responsibility for what they publish, which is often not in accordance with the facts,” the priest added.
Stanislawa Kuzio-Podrucka, an activist from the Polish Women’s Strike network from the nearby town of Zgorzelec, who has supported Magda in her quest for justice, describes the situation surrounding the priest and the stance of the Polish Catholic Church as “unbelievable”.
“We have a justice minister who says we don’t need the Istanbul Convention against violence, that national legislation is enough, and all the while the victim here has to hide at home together with her whole family, while the aggressor gets to walk around free,” Kuzio-Podrucka told BIRN, referring to a treaty designed to protect women from gender-based violence, which Poland’s right-wing government has vowed to withdraw from.
“You have Margot thrown in jail for two months for stopping a van which was calling her a pedophile, and at the same time this real pedophile gets to move around as he pleases and only has to report to the police now and again,” Kuzio-Podrucka added. Margot is an LGBT activist whose arrest earlier this month sparked nationwide protests.
Culture of silence
Artur Nowak, the lawyer, says pedophilia is such a big problem in the Polish Catholic Church because young men hardly out of adolescence are forced into a life of celibacy and given no education or support in how to deal with their evolving sexuality.
“They’re supposed to stay celibate but at the same time they suddenly find themselves with all this authority, plus resources, money, nice clothes – many don’t manage that too well,” Nowak said. “There is no sexual education at all in the Church and, if someone struggles, they are told to pray. But prayers don’t solve anything.”
Nowak says many high-level figures in the Church are also guilty of such crimes, which, over time, has led to a “culture of blackmail and silence” inside the Church. “Now, with the gun of the media at their head, they had to react, so they sacrificed some people,” said Nowak. “But they didn’t do this because they really want to transform the Church – it’s all just a marketing ploy.”
After the Sekielski documentary was released in May last year, the Polish Episcopate promised to start working on “systemic solutions” to the problems highlighted in the film, including improving the system of reporting such crimes to Church authorities. Further pressure on the Polish Episcopate came from Pope Francis himself, who in May 2019 issued an official act entitled, “You are the light of the world”, through which he set up Church-wide procedures for how to deal with sexual abuse by priests, including the obligation to report and investigate known cases.
“There are no words to express our shame at the sexual scandals involving priests,” the Polish Episcopate wrote in a public statement in May last year, adding that the Church had not done enough to prevent this kind of harm. “These scandals… require total condemnation and also harsh penalties for the criminals and for those who conceal such acts.”
A year later, however, the Sekielski brothers showed in their follow-up documentary that priests accused of abuse continued to be protected by a veil of silence, leading the Episcopate’s representative for the protection of children and youth to admit that, “the Church’s standards for the protection of children and youth were not being respected”.
Last year, many demanded the establishment of a special state commission to deal with pedophilia inside the Polish Catholic Church. While a commission was finally set up this summer by the Polish parliament, its mandate is to deal with pedophilia in general and it has limited powers. Nowak, the lawyer, said he did not recognise any of the names on the list of members as experts in the field.
When the Church pedophilia scandal broke last May, the governing Law and Justice (PiS), whose key politicians have been loudly accusing the “LGBT lobby” of posing a threat to Polish children, was faced with a tough balancing act: suddenly, facts revealed in the documentary indicated the threat was actually coming from inside the Polish Catholic Church, a PiS ally. While PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his party colleagues promised tough action against pedophiles, they were quick to stress that the phenomenon was present everywhere in society and not especially linked to the Church.
Back in Ruszow, reports from the local media said that Piotr M., the convicted priest, spent the first days back at the house of a woman from the local community who had been supporting him since his arrest.
According to Magda, when she reported the abuse to the police, many of her neighbours turned against her, accusing her of inventing things to get financial compensation from the Polish Catholic Church (which so far has not contacted Magda to offer any support or apology). She says that, in the early days, she was spat on and thrown out of local shops.
Stanislawa Kuzio-Podrucka, who last year went to Ruszow to organise a solidarity protest with Magda and her daughter, says hardly anyone came out in support, while some locals shouted abuse at her. When she tried to promote the protest in local media, a journalist from the main local news portal wrote to her: “we do not need someone external to organise a debate for us… we manage on our own”.
While the priest was waiting in temporary detention for the trial to begin last year, over 300 locals signed a petition asking for his release and some showed up outside the court to support him. Letters that the priest wrote from jail, in which he complains of the injustice committed against him, were distributed in the community.
“This is my 11th month bearing the shackles: on my hands, for the love that I carry in my heart for you; on the legs, for the numerous pilgrimages which I undertook for the sake of the youth and the older pilgrims from the Wroclaw and now Legnica dioceses,” the priest wrote from jail in March this year upon hearing the verdict from the first instance court.
“Hence, I am bearing – helping to bear – the cross of Jesus Christ that people placed on me,” the priest continued in the letter, seen by BIRN, in which he also states he continues to hope that his conviction will be overturned. “The most harmed are the children – not by me! – because they had to hear false witness.”
But Magda says that, since the conviction, some people have improved their attitude to her. And Nowak, the lawyer, says that society at large, rather than the Church, is changing.
“Awareness changed with the [first Sekielski] film,” Nowak said. “Victims could see that it is not their fault, priests realised they have to speak up, otherwise there are consequences. The rank-and-file among the prosecution too are reacting appropriately.”
The lawyer adds that “no one will come with a magic wand to solve this problem”, but it is likely to diminish with time as Polish society secularises – a trend already being observed, particularly among the youth.