Polish clerical abuse film turns mirror on audience

Warsaw Letter: ‘Kler’ church paedophilia and corruption plot points finger at passivity

Wojciech Smarzowski’s “Kler” is based almost exclusively on real stories of predatory priests, sadistic nuns and alcoholic archbishops. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wojciech Smarzowski’s “Kler” is based almost exclusively on real stories of predatory priests, sadistic nuns and alcoholic archbishops. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

 

It’s Monday night in Warsaw but the Muranow cinema is so full they’ve put out extra seats. Everybody wants to see Kler (Clergy), a jaw-dropping new film about sex, alcoholism, paedophilia and corruption in Poland’s Catholic Church.

Breaking box-office records in its first weekend, Kler tells of three jaded priests each battling their demons in a film with a pitiless gaze, bleak humour, understated performances and some of the most disturbing music in film history.

In the Poland of Kler, priests are unquestioned shepherds, testing their superiors’ patience and their indulgent flocks’ ability to turn a blind eye. Priestly power over parish life and death is absolute, with a going rate of 2000 zloty (€463) for a good graveyard plot, a shotgun wedding or an abortion for one priest’s girlfriend.

“Didn’t you take precautions?” the surprised priest asks. She replies drily: “My faith didn’t allow me.”

A second, likeable priest faces child abuse allegations, dredging up suppressed memories as a child abuse victim. 

A third, seeking a Vatican promotion, resorts to blackmail against his feckless, potty-mouth archbishop preoccupied with building an expensive new shrine.

Planning permission for a coach park was granted at the site of the shrine, we learn, two years before the unspecified miracle occurred. 

Unholy show

Looking on at the unholy show, a disillusioned young curate remarks: “The church is supposed to be a community but when one has a problem there is no one to talk to.”

In a country where 40 per cent of the population still attend weekly Mass, Kler has touched a raw nerve 

The parallels with Ireland are impossible to ignore, in particular a church hierarchy that demands absolute obedience and prioritises institutional reputation over child safety. The prime victims of clerical child sex abuse, the archbishop insists, are “oppressed priests” who must be moved away from “hurtful eyes”.

As a seasoned diocesan aide comments: “The good of the church obliges us to avoid whatever might bring misfortune to all of us.”

In a country where 40 per cent of the population still attend weekly Mass, Kler has touched a raw nerve in Poland. 

One nationalist, clerical newspaper reproduced the film poster with faces of hallowed Polish religious figures, including the late Polish pope, above the tagline: “Protect our [church] treasure from Nazis, Communists, LGBT and Islamists.”

Jacek Kurski, chairman of public television and a close ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, dismissed Kler as a “provocative, trashy” attack on the church that was “brutal and untrue”.

Tellingly, however, the Polish episcopate, usually quick to intervene on any number of topics, has declined to comment now.

The film’s events, while conflated and compressed into one narrative, are almost all based on real stories of predatory priests, sadistic nuns and alcoholic archbishops.

At its premiere last month, the film was given an 11-minute standing ovation. In the Warsaw cinema on Monday night, the film ended with spontaneous applause.

It’s worth asking why, despite a quarter-century head-start, Ireland has never produced anything quite like Kler?

On the way out, Antonina, a Warsaw student, says she was not surprised by what she saw, even though it was quite a lot at once.

“What is remarkable,” she said, “is that the film was made in Poland at all.”

Church power

More than a decade after the death of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church is still a force to be reckoned with in Polish life. 

On Twitter, Fr Tomasz Szopa, chancellor of the archdiocese of Krakow (where the film is set), wrote that on the same weekend that a record one million Poles saw Kler, five million received Communion.

Poland’s conservative PiS government is careful to court the church in the legislative process, and bishops return the favour with pulpit endorsements of PiS. But many Poles, particularly younger urbanites, are tiring of this cartel and of insistence, despite snowballing scandals, that Polish clerical abuses – of children and power – are isolated cases.

Polish archbishops are readying their own far-reaching clerical abuse report. And a Poznan appeals court has just ordered a religious order to pay one million zloty (€232,000) in compensation, and a monthly lifetime pension of 800zl, to a woman who was abducted and sexually abused by one of its priests when she was 13.

As Poland’s Catholic culture of deference wobbles, it’s worth asking why, despite a quarter-century head-start, Ireland has never produced anything quite like Kler?

After presenting clerical abuse in all its awful forms, the film turns its gaze on power structures conducive to such abuses. Not spared are complicit citizens, whose passivity and apathy allow unspeakable horror to take place – even in a self-described “Christ among nations”.

The lesson of Kler: it’s important to look in the mirror, even if you know you won’t like what you see.

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