The private Polish television station TVN has been reporting on child abuse in Poland’s Catholic Church and attempts to sweep the scandals under the carpet for years. The excitement in the majority Catholic country has so far mostly been limited. But the last show in this series, which aired a week ago, stung a hornet’s nest.
The authors of the documentation provided evidence that Pope John Paul II knew about the abuse cases but had not acted clearly enough against the perpetrators.
The “Polish” pope – who died in 2005 and canonized in 2014 – is still considered a national hero in his home country. The people who see Karol Wojtyla as their role model and point of reference, and who have shaped politics and culture in Poland since the fall of the Iron Curtain, are even called “Generation JP2”.
Three abuse cases
The TVN report covers the 1960s and 1970s, when Karol Wojtyla served as Archbishop of Kraków, before his election as Pope in 1978. The journalists document three cases of priests sexually abusing children and afterwards, for Partly after serving a prison sentence, were allowed to continue working as chaplains. In one case, the delinquent priest, who also worked as an unofficial employee for the communist secret service, was transferred to Austria.
John Paul II enjoys great prestige in Poland. His portrait at the Bishop’s Palace in Kraków commemorates him
Several victims also had their say in the film, most of them anonymously. One of those affected claimed that he had already informed Wojtyla in 1973 about the sexual assault of a priest. The archbishop is said to have asked him not to speak further about the matter.
Gift to the government?
The United Right, which governs Poland, saw the broadcast critical of the Pope as an opportunity to divert attention from its own problems. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) is under pressure because of rising consumer prices and corruption scandals. The pope’s criticism came – half a year before the parliamentary elections – as a new topic like a gift from God.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the allegations against Karol Wojtyla an “attempt to trigger a civilizational war in Poland”. Culture Minister Piotr Glinski said: “An attack on the Pope is an attack on Poland, on Polish raison d’état.”
The incumbent Archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jedraszewski, took the same line. He spoke of the “second assassination attempt on John Paul II.” The Pope was seriously injured by an assassin in the Vatican in 1981. “Today, since you can no longer physically kill John Paul II, people are trying to kill his memory,” emphasized the arch-conservative cleric.
The right defends the good name of the Pope
In no time at all, the PiS faction in parliament drafted the text of a resolution to “defend the good name of the Pope”. It says: “The Sejm resolutely condemns the shameful incitement of the media, which is largely based on the documents of the violent apparatus of the [kommunistischen] People’s Republic of Poland and directed against the great Pope, Saint John Paul II, the greatest Pole in the country’s history.”
“We will not allow the image of a person whom the whole free world recognizes as a pillar of victory over the evil empire to be destroyed,” announced the PiS deputies. They criticized the documents shown in the TVN report as “fabricated by the communists”. During the debate in the Sejm, PiS parliamentarians held up portraits of the Pope.
“They don’t want to defend the pope, they want to include him in the PiS,” shouted Pawel Kowal from the opposition Civic Platform (PO). Nevertheless, the resolution was passed with a large majority. Part of the opposition also voted with the PiS.
Mobilization of voters through religious war
In reality, the documents of the communist secret service, kept in the Institute of National Remembrance IPN, represent only part of the evidence. Court and church documents, as well as testimonies of the victims also play an important role. “The PiS cynically uses John Paul II as an instrument to maintain power. The party expects that it will use the religious war to mobilize its electorate and thus secure its third legislative period,” says Justyna Dobrosz-Oracz, a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza.
A police officer steps on a banner with the logo of private TV broadcaster TVN during a protest against restrictions on freedom of expression
TVN, part of the American Discovery Channel, has long been a thorn in the side of the Polish right. In order to demonstrate its dissatisfaction with the documentary and show its voters strength, the State Department in Warsaw called in US Ambassador Mark Brzezinski for an interview. There, the diplomat was told that the station aims to create tension and divide Polish society, as in a hybrid war.
Leftist dissident defends the Pope
The controversy over John Paul II is more than a conflict between right and left. The icon of the liberal Polish opposition, the publicist Adam Michnik, calls in his newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, for the pope “not to be reduced to the pedophilia scandals”.
The former civil rights activist, who advocated an alliance between the church and the secular left in the 1970s, recalls the Pope’s merits in defeating the communist dictatorship and his commitment to Poland’s accession to the EU. “Wojtyla was a child of his time. What we take for granted today was not a matter of course 40 years ago,” Michnik said before the TVN documentary was broadcast.
Pope Francis is also trying to understand. “You have to put things in their time. (…) In those days everything was covered up. Until the Boston scandal. It was only when the Boston scandal broke out that the church began to look at the problem,” said Francis in an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion.
In a first reaction, the Polish bishops declared that a fair assessment of the decisions and activities of Karol Wojtyla required “further archive research”.
However, the chances for such research by independent historians are extremely slim. Archbishop Jedraszewski, who decides on access to church archives, has locked all personnel files. Even the dossiers of people who have been dead for 50 years or more are blocked.
In a video speech, Parliament Speaker Elzbieta Witek emphasized the importance of John Paul II for Poland
Parliament President Elzbieta Witek also spoke. “John Paul II is our identity, our foundation and link. The communists knew that, that’s why they tried to destroy him. Today their successors do that after his death,” said the PiS politician in a television speech on Thursday evening. For the Poles, the Pope means the “light of freedom”. Whoever tries to extinguish this light will meet with a clear and hard no.