Polish protesters topple statue of Solidarity priest accused of abuse

Activists say Polish church failed in resolving the country’s problem of sex abuse by clergy

 

Polish police are questioning three men after the statue of the Solidarity movement’s former chaplain was pulled down amid child abuse claims.

Hours before the opening of the Vatican summit on child sexual abuse by priests, activists in the northern city of Gdansk toppled the statue of Henryk Jankowski to highlight what they see as the ongoing failure of Polish bishops and politicians to address such abuse in their country.

They accused the church of “systemic complicity in the evil done to people by Henryk Jankowski”. Local politicians looked away, they added, rather than address the priest’s “vile” acts against young people in the city.

A video posted to YouTube shows three men looping a rope around the neck of the statute of Msgr Jankowski, who died in 2010. After yanking down the statue, and severing the pedestal’s anchoring cables, the protesters put children’s underwear in one of the statue’s hands. In the other: a white lace altar-boy surplice.

Chaplain

In a manifesto posted online, the Gdansk activists said their actions were not directed against Polish Catholics but “driven by concern for the common good and respect for human dignity and freedom”.

Msgr Jankowski became a prominent figure as chaplain to the Solidarity trade union, founded in Gdansk in 1980. His parish church became a meeting place for union activists in their battle with the communist government in Warsaw.

Through his close ties to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, he hosted world leaders in his church, including US president George HW Bush and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Walesa and other Solidarity figures distanced themselves from him over his growing nationalism and anti-Semitic views. He was removed from his position as parish priest in 2004, and faced growing allegations before his death that he had abused boys and girls.

Thursday’s attack on the Gdansk statue is just the latest spectacular intervention in a country where 90 per cent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and bishops still enjoy significant political authority.

Red paint

In December, red paint was poured over the Jankowski statue after fresh media reports against the priest. A woman claimed the priest abused her and other children in the 1970s. A second woman said he touched her inappropriately when she was six.

Plans by the city to remove the statue were overshadowed by the stabbing of the city mayor last month. After taking matters into their own hands, the three protesters demanded the removal of the toppled statue and the “hideous myth” around the priest’s heroism. Gdansk city hall said it would not return the monument to its public place and will instead put it into storage.

‘Slander’

The committee that financed the Jankowski statue demanded it be reinstated on Thursday, insisting that all charges against the priest were dropped during his lifetime. “What happened was based on slander, with no confirmation in reality, against someone dead for nine years,” said a spokesman, Krzysztof Dosla.

In a statement on Thursday morning, ahead of the Vatican conference, the Polish Bishops’ Conference made no reference to the statue but promised “zero tolerance” on paedophilia in its ranks.