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Polish clerical abuse survivor accused of extortion

Leaked emails suggest Marek Lisinski, founder of the Have No Fear support foundation, may have invented his own abuse story

Marek Lisinski is under investigation after leaked emails suggest he extorted money from the Polish church and abuse survivors. Photograph: by Wojtek Radwanski / AFP

When Marek Lisinski handed Pope Francis a 27-page report into clerical abuse in the Polish church last February, he didn’t expect the pontiff to kiss his hand.

That spontaneous gesture of humility, during a high-profile gathering of church leaders in Rome, was the high point of Mr Lisinski’s work to break the taboo over clerical sexual abuse in his Catholic homeland.

“I’ve had to wait a long time for a moment like this,” he said afterwards. “It will stay with me my entire life.”

But now Mr Lisinski is under investigation after leaked emails suggest he extorted money from the Polish church and abuse survivors – and may have invented his own abuse story.

Mr Lisinski has resigned as head of the Have No Fear foundation, which lobbies on behalf of survivors of clerical abuse, after it emerged that he asked a prominent abuse survivor for a loan for medical treatment.

She gave him the loan but grew suspicious and went to the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, which began an investigation into Mr Lisinski.

Employees of the foundation and friends of Mr Lisinski have now come forward with emails in which, contrary to his public denials, he appears to admit extorting money from priests.

‘Stay silent’

In one email he describes pressuring the church for a payment of 150,000 zloty (€35,100) over an abuse case.

“That will solve my problems. This sum is not excessive, especially for a church as rich as the one in Poland,” he wrote to a friend. “There’s a lot to be gained. I can see that the man in a collar in curia is so frightened he’ll agree to anything just so I don’t speak to the press. All I ask you is to stay silent.”

While this message appears to be relating to a more recent case, Mr Lisinski demanded 200 000 zloty from the curia to withdraw his case against a priest he said abused him.

The priest was convicted in a canonical trial and launched a civil case against Mr Lisinski but was forced to drop it by his bishop.

The revelations have rocked Poland just weeks after a documentary about clerical child sexual abusers and survivors, Tell No One, was posted online. Viewed 22 million times so far, it helped break decades of silence over child abuse in Poland and prompted an apology from leading archbishops. It also strained ties between the church and Poland’s national conservative government, which was relying on clerical endorsement ahead of parliamentary elections in the autumn.

A recent Polish church report estimates that almost 400 Catholic priests sexually abused more than 600 children between 1990 and mid-2018, considered a low estimate.

Medical records

Since the documentary went online it has emerged that Mr Lisinski was supposed to feature prominently in it. When he demanded 50,000 zloty (€11,700) for his participation, the only participant to demand money, the documentary makers refused and edited out his contributions.

What they didn’t know at this point was that he had already demanded – and received – a payment of 30,000 zloty (€7,000) from a woman identified only as Katarzyna. Now 26, she was abducted and abused by a priest when she was 13 and, last year, was awarded 1 million zloty (€234,000) by a Polish court.

She knew Mr Lisinski from her case and was shocked when he told her he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. Supposedly short of money for an experimental procedure, she gave him a loan of 30,000 zloty (€7,000) but grew suspicious after she saw him giving television interviews shortly after the operation.

When she asked for medical records, and he sent her only photographs of supposed spots on his body, she approached the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. Mr Lisinski denied their request for his medical records saying he had “no obligation to inform anyone about my physical health, because it is my private matter”.

When the newspaper went public he resigned from his position, insisting he had never taken any money from the foundation set up to assist clerical sexual abuse survivors.

With questions growing about his own story as an abuse survivor, Mr Lisinski wrote on Facebook: “The good of survivors has always been the overriding goal in my life.”