A dark side of the Catholic Church
Friday, 24 May 2013 16:41

POLISH media are notoriously wary of confronting the powerful Catholic Church. Until recently, at least. On May 23rd TVN24, a news channel, ran a half-hour programme about child abuse by priests. It was the second in just a few weeks.

The show featured three case studies in which only one victim showed his face—and he was speaking from Canada. The reports illustrated the hostility and disbelief victims face in Poland when they tell their stories. They highlighted the Church’s stubborn refusal to take any responsibility as an institution and, worse, the individual priests’ apparent sense of impunity.

One of the three items also featured my own experience whilst trying to investigate a case for France 24 television. We had spoken to a man who told us he had been abused in the late 1970s by someone who was now rector of a parish in Szczecin. We travelled to the parish and found the cleric in question (who cannot be named for legal reasons) leading mass. Afterwards, I asked him whether he had any comment to make on the allegations, and got an astonishing reaction. Accusing us of filming illegally, the priest led both me and the cameraman into the rectory… and locked us in.

After a few minutes we tried to escape, and were violently blocked by the cleric. Fortunately, in the scuffle that ensued he dropped his keys and we were able to get out. Our detention had lasted less than ten minutes and nobody was hurt. But since we had managed to film the whole thing on two cameras, we gave some of the footage to local journalists.The story made the national news the following day, prompting a degree of fuss, though not exactly an uproar.

What is remarkable is the reaction from the Church. For two days neither parish nor diocese would comment at all. Then came a statement from the diocese spokesman to the effect that they were looking into the possibility of charging us with trespassing and slander. According to prosecutors no such complaint has yet been lodged. We had already reported the incident to the police.

The spokesman also told TVN he had no knowledge of paedophilia charges against the priest in question. The very same spokesman’s signature is on documents relating to the formal complaint the victim lodged with the diocese more than two years ago.

Back then, the bishop promised to investigate the matter, and both victim and priest were questioned. But as far as the victim is aware, there was no conclusion.The priest continued to work with minors, in clear breach of the Polish Church’s own rules, which state that a priest suspected of abuse must be distanced from working with children, pending investigation.

According to the Szczecin diocese, this particular rector continues to work even after the latest incident. TVN’s reporter, however, found no-one in the town who could confirm this. In fact, no one had seen him since our adventure. Clerics accused of abuse often vanish in this way, only to resurface in some faraway parish a little later.

Over the past decade media have regularly denounced such practices in America, Ireland and other countries. Huge scandals have erupted, forcing the Church to take responsibility and enhance safeguards. Not so in Poland, which has the highest proportion of practising Catholics in Europe (bar Malta). Cases do emerge, and priests are occasionally found guilty in the courts. But the Church has not paid any compensation to victims, and the true extent of abuse remains largely unknown.

Victims’ testimonies, gathered in a book published earlier this year by Ekke Overbeek, a Dutch journalist, would suggest that abuse in Poland is widespread and well-hidden. But though the dioceses must have, at the very least, information on the numbers of formal complaints they receive, the Church publishes no statistics.

Recently a radio station, TOK FM, sent a written request for information to Poland’s dioceses. None of the replies so far have been very helpful; one simply states, in capital letters, “It is none of your business”.

TOK FM’s initiative is another sign that this year, pressure from the media is slowly mounting. Mr Overbeek’s book led several publications to report on the phenomenon, though he remains sceptical of Polish editors’ willingness to really follow things up. Fear of Church power is one problem; another is fear of losing viewers and readers by broaching an unpopular topic.

Mr Overbeek has helped to inspire victims of sexual abuse to create a support organisation. They formally registered it earlier this month, and named it “Be Not Afraid” in a somewhat ironic quotation of the revered Polish Pope, John Paul II. The message is intended to encourage victims to speak out. It could equally be directed at journalists.

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