To the outsider’s eye, the Catholic Church reigns supreme in Poland. On a regular Sunday, Polish church pews are full while queues form, even during Mass, for Confession.
In 2016, the country installed Jesus Christ as King of Poland at a grand ceremony in Krakow. Last year, after three decades of lobbying, Polish bishops secured an almost total ban on abortion.
Nearly two decades after the death of the Polish pope in 2005, and nearly a decade after he was canonised, the face of St John Paul II remains omnipresent in his homeland. But the church he shaped like no other is now in meltdown since, last week, the unthinkable finally happened.
After a steady drip of clerical sexual abuse revelations in recent years, a new book and a television documentary presented claims that, in his 14 years as archbishop of Krakow, the then cardinal Karol Wojtyła was not just aware of priests who sexually abused children – he covered up for them.
Before he went to the 1978 papal conclave in Rome and ended up becoming pope himself, the book and film claim Wojtyła had personal experience of the very clerical child abuse cover-ups he would face – and fail to act on – from Quebec, Ireland, the US and Australia.
“He may not have wanted to know but he was perfectly well aware of what was going on,” says Ekke Overbeek, Dutch author of Maxima Culpa.
For Irish ears, the Poland-based journalist’s revelations – and those in a documentary on Poland’s TVN station – may sound familiar.
A priest, who covered schoolgirls with his jacket during catechism class and abused them, was suspended and reinstated by Wojtyła after a one-year prison term. Within four years that priest was abusing girls once more.
In a second case, a man told TVN how, in 1973, he reported his abuse by a paedophile priest personally to Wojtyła, who “asked that it not be reported anywhere – that he would deal with it”.
A final case involves a Krakow priest who sexually assaulted boys in the 1970s and was sent to Austria with the backing of Wojtyła. His letter of recommendation reportedly made no mention of the priest’s conviction for the rape of minors, suggesting instead the priest be allowed research “development psychology and the impact of technical civilisation on the child’s psyche”.
An attack on the pope is an attack on Poland— Piotr Glinski, cultural affairs minister
Similar abuse claims were made in previous Polish books, documentaries and the 2018 feature film Kler (Clerics) in which a priest states: “The good of the church obliges us to avoid whatever might bring misfortune to all of us.”
The blowback has been swift: Overbeek’s publisher has cancelled his first two events with audiences because of what the author calls concerns “about the atmosphere”.
“I don’t know if it is a bit exaggerated but they had good reasons to cancel, probably,” he says. “I did expect an exaggerated reaction from the church. It was a bit of a surprise to me that politics would jump on this so violently.”
With national elections six months away, the unfolding row over John Paul II – saint or sinner? – has been a gift to Poland’s ruling nationalist-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS).
Previously unsure of a return to power, it is pinning hopes of a record third term by presenting itself as the one true defender of the Catholic faith and Poland’s national identity – for many, still one and the same thing.
The foreign ministry called in the US ambassador to hear how Poland views the report on TVN – owned by the US Warner Discovery group – as “hybrid warfare”. Cultural affairs minister Piotr Glinski says “an attack on the pope is an attack on Poland”.
Going even further, Archbishop of Krakow Marek Jędraszewski says the claims are, after a near-fatal gun attack in 1981, the “second assassination attempt on John Paul II”.
As the abuse debate gathered pace, the government settled on October 16th next – Pope John Paul II Sunday – for the parliamentary election and projected an image of the late pontiff on Warsaw’s presidential palace. In parliament, government MPs held up photographs of the late pope and passed a resolution that “strongly condemns the shameful media campaign, based largely on the materials of the communist apparatus of violence”.
Such concerns, opposition figures noted, never stopped PiS happily harvesting secret police archives in the past to discredit political rivals.
As the political campaign ramps up, however, the victims have been largely forgotten.
For journalist Marta Abramowicz, author of a book on abuse in Polish religious orders, this is the main difference to date between Poland and Irish abuse cases.
“In Ireland you had victims who openly fought for the truth while in Poland they don’t have agency yet,” she says. “When the victims start to talk publicly about their experience, perhaps now in the next months, that will indicate a real change.”
Another major difference is the environment in which the abuse happened: unlike Ireland’s broad network of Catholic-controlled schools, hospitals and other institutions, Catholic religious have never had the same unsupervised access to minors in Poland’s largely state-run institutions.
Similar to Ireland, though, claims about their pope and their church are particularly painful for many believers here. As in Ireland, their centuries-old Catholic faith was a spiritual touchstone and a repository for national identity in dark centuries when Poland was partitioned by neighbours and even vanished from the map of Europe.
Romantic era Polish writers likened their long-suferring country to the crucified Christ and national hero Adam Mickewicz popularised the idea of Polska Chrystusem narodów (Christ Among Nations) – an idea that persisted into the devastation of the second World War.
It cost six million Poles their lives, or a fifth of its pre-war population, including 3,000 Catholic religious. Rather than recovery enjoyed in western Europe, the postwar decades in Poland were an uneasy cohabitation between the church and Moscow-backed communist government.
This was the world of Karol Wojtyła, born in 1920 near Krakow and ordained there in 1946. For his many supporters, his 14 years as archbishop of Krakow were an exemplary balancing act in difficult times.
From 1950 to today, almost 400 Catholic priests sexually abused more than 600 children— Church-commissioned study
Overbeek agrees that Polish clerics faced a uniquely challenging situation in the postwar communist era but he says their situation offered unique opportunities, too, for cover-up.
“The communist authorities had no moral credibility and believers would dismiss all cases as propaganda,” he argues.
Polish researchers are divided about Overbeek’s research: while some have raised health warnings about trusting communist secret police files, others have pointed to corroborating evidence he – and TVN – uncovered from other sources.
Clarity may yet come from the Catholic Church itself: the new claims are so serious that Polish bishops have finally agreed to open their archives to researchers so that Wojtyła’s actions can be “fairly assessed”.
It is a big step, given previous trawls of their archives in recent years, also sparked by abuse revelations, have produced sobering results.
One church-commissioned study of its records showed indications of how, from 1950 to today, almost 400 Catholic priests sexually abused more than 600 children. A separate state commission on paedophilia found that 345 cases of paedophile assaults on children were reported to the police in recent years, and that almost one-third of the suspects were priests or religious.
In recent days Pope Francis has waded into the row, insisting that the context of the era was essential to keep in mind: “At that time everything was covered up.”
No abuse allegations can dim the Polish pope’s crucial role in reshaping the map of Europe— Adam Micnik, veteran Polish civil rights activist
As the battle for their pope’s legacy enters high gear, philosopher Ignacy Dudkiewicz attempted to speak for Poland’s conflicted, largely voiceless middle camp.
In an open “letter to my children” he describes how Poland, rather than acknowledge he was a real man who had real achievements and made real mistakes, turned their pope into “something between a meme and a statue”.
“The consequences of these mistakes affected specific people, sometimes horribly, drastically,” he says. “Some of his merits are less than described. Some of his mistakes, while inexcusable, need to be understood in a broader context.”
That echoes veteran Polish civil rights activist Adam Micnik, who says no abuse allegations can dim the Polish pope’s crucial role in reshaping the map of Europe.
With his election to the papacy in 1978 – and his triumphant return to his homeland a year later – Wojtyła started the countdown on communist Poland. Before a crowd of one million people in Warsaw, he urged God to “let your spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land”.
That renewal was already under way in Gdansk, where the Solidarity trade union faced down the communist authorities in the city’s shipyards. Securing official recognition from the state in 1980, union leader Lech Walesa signed the deal using a red novelty Pope John Paul II pen.
After the transition to democracy in 1989, however, not everyone in Poland backed how the victorious Polish church worked quickly to assert its authority, secure benefits and shape public policy. Many see the latest allegations hitting a church that has been on the slide since the pope’s death in 2005.
While 95 per cent of Poles are baptised Catholic, church statistics indicate regular Sunday Mass attendance slid from 37 per cent before the pandemic to 28 per cent in 2021; the number of new seminarians in 2021, at 356, is down 133 per cent on a decade ago.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village, too, to abuse one— Ekke Overbeek, Dutch author of Maxima Culpa
Sociological studies flag many factors for this: large-scale emigration, growing prosperity and, according to church analyses, a shift from spiritual to material priorities.
For some bishops, fears of a growing, long-term decline have seen them embrace a new church-state alliance with the ruling PiS party, railing against western liberalism and its perceived embrace of decadence, moral relativism and materialism. Horrified liberal Catholics fear bishops have made their church a hostage of PiS, violating second Vatican Council teaching that the church “in no way identifies with a political grouping nor does it link itself to a political system”.
After triggering a controversy with his book, Overbeek says the real work is still ahead. Poland’s Solidarity generation, he says, “are simply unable to admit that the pope could also have the face of a church apparatchik who defended the institution at all costs”.
Among younger Poles, he says, their only interest in the Catholic church and John Paul II is “to the extent that they will one day have to write a school test on this”.
The last, greatest, challenge for Polish society, he suggests, will be acknowledging the level of complicity of ordinary Poles that allowed priests to abuse.
Among his book’s most painful passages, Overbeek documents parishes rallying behind paedophile priests: holding farewell parties with gifts and whip-rounds. “It takes a village to raise a child,” says Overbeek, “but it takes a village, too, to abuse one.”