In a Warsaw elevator, Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek and his publicist are exchanging worried words. It’s four hours until his first public event to promote his new book, Maxima Culpa: John Paul II Knew, claiming that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, as archbishop of Kraków, protected four paedophile priests before becoming pope in 1978.
The book has rattled Poland’s Catholic church. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the late pope’s closest aide, accused the book of “aiming to trample on the memory of all that Poland owes to the Holy Pontiff and to destroy his legacy”.
Even more vocal are Poland’s politicians, in particular the ruling national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party. With an eye on autumn parliamentary election, and the prospect of pulpit endorsements, PiS has organised a Warsaw march on Sunday – the 18th anniversary of his death – to “defend the memory” of their pope.
PiS-controlled state media, in parallel with many dubious social media accounts, are leading a vigorous campaign to shoot the messenger. First came a fake Twitter account in Overbeek’s name (the journalist is absent from social media). In the Warsaw elevator, the talk is of a Wikipedia page about him filled with false claims.
[ Poland accuses US-owned broadcaster over claims Pope John Paul II knew about paedophile priests ]
A philosophy graduate from Groningen, he first came to Poland for two years in 1991 and has lived and worked here for the past quarter century.
“I used to like living here but this is a character assassination,” says Overbeek, a youthful 53-year-old with a mane of brown curly hair framing watchful eyes. “I am the ideal target: a foreigner, a Protestant from the nasty Netherlands Sodom and Gomorrah.”
His 500-page book relates the story of the Catholic Church in postwar communist Poland and presents four cases of priests who sexually abused children in the Kraków archdiocese under Karol Wojtyla. As well as uncovering police reports and court documents, Overbeek found and interviewed abuse survivors, indirect witnesses to the abuse – and turned up documents written by Wojtyła himself.
In a 1971 letter to a priest convicted of oral rape of girls, Wojtyla describes the abuse as a “crime” yet reinstates him to parish work – where he abuses again. In another case Wojtyla wrote a personal letter of recommendation for an abusing priest – a personal friend – for a new post in Austria, making no mention of his criminal record.
Though church archives remain closed to him and other researchers, Overbeek says he has found additional circumstantial evidence to indicate that there may have been further such cases in the Kraków archdiocese.
He never expected to return to clerical sexual abuse after his 2010 book, Be Afraid, told the stories of Polish clerical sexual abuse survivors. What made him return to the subject? Because, he says, of how all subsequent reports and films on the subject tiptoed around the big question: what did John Paul II know? Revered by millions of Poles, Pope John Paul II remains the personification of Poland’s robust merger of Catholic and national identities – and their triumph over communism and preceding centuries of foreign oppression.
“If Marvel wanted a Polish superhero it would be John Paul II – he ticked every box,” says Mateusz Mazzini, a Warsaw journalist and author. “He was a beacon of hope – far beyond religious circles – particularly for Poles craving international recognition. These allegations now challenge people to look again on a period they cherish so much – and many simply refuse to do so.”
Unlike Ireland’s church-run schools and hospitals, with ample opportunities for abuse, clerical sexual abuse in Poland often took place in rural communities. Villagers who revered abusing priests back then are conflicted when reminded of how they ignored victims and their suffering.
As Pope John Paul II, he shrugged off calls to intervene in clerical sexual abuse scandals worldwide, often siding with abusers and bishops who covered up their crimes - or who were themselves abusers
For clerics, the book challenges their passive silence and highlights lapses of judgment: the bishop who sent in an exorcist rather than a therapist to an abuse survivor, who later took her life; the bishop who suggested an abusing priest had been “seduced” by altar servers.
For former Jesuit priest Stanislaw Obirek, the strong pushback is motivated, too, by the existential threat it poses to the post-1989 church narrative – and privileges bishops secured after the transition to democracy.
“The narrative of the church as an institution oppressed by the bad communists is simply not true,” he says. “In the post-Stalin era the church in Poland was not in opposition to communism – it was co-habitating, playing a game to gain as much space as possible.”
Equally confusing for many Poles is the Cardinal Wojtyla revealed in the files presented by Overbeek: less the empathetic father figure they remember from his visits home and more a functionary concerned with what he regularly referred to as “Dobro Kosciol” – the good of the church.
That is the mentality Cardinal Wojtyla brought with him to Rome in 1978, Overbeek argues, dovetailing with secret Holy See rules on clerical sexual abuse from 50 years earlier.
As Pope John Paul II, he shrugged off calls to intervene in clerical sexual abuse scandals worldwide, often siding with abusers and bishops who covered up their crimes – or who were themselves abusers.
“He knew all about this when he started in Rome,” says Overbeek, “so the arguments his defenders put forward – that he didn’t know or realise – all falls apart because of Kraków.”
Given the Polish pope’s own strict sexual morality, the Dutch journalist is critical of the second line of defence – “they were different times” – on clerical sexual abuse of children.
“It is hard to believe that he did not understand that sex with children is something bad,” he adds. “I don’t think he was a cynic yet. Even though he knew how bad it was, he chose to believe it was not so.”
The Warsaw reading of Overbeek’s book went ahead this week only with security controls at the door and bodyguards visible throughout the event
The pushback against his book – and an independently researched television documentary making similar allegations – was swift. Instead of addressing the claims, though, or engaging with victims, the allegations have been reframed by Poland’s government and media as an attack on national identity and honour. A similar campaign four years ago ended with the fatal stabbing of Pawel Adamowicz, mayor of Gdansk, at a public event.
Agora, Overbeek’s Polish publisher, had already cancelled two readings because of security concerns. The Warsaw reading went ahead this week only with security controls at the door and bodyguards visible throughout the event.
Some 80 people listened intensely during the two-hour event. One woman praised Overbeek’s “amazing ability to get to the facts, the meticulousness”. Even though she left the church years ago, the book forced her to “rearrange things in her head”.
Telling wearingly familiar tales of priests preying on disadvantaged children, Overbeek says Polish survivors of clerical sexual abuse are almost invisible. The aura of the church and John Paul II remain so great, he says, that there “is a strong fear of ostracism”.
“In Poland, more strongly than in other countries, victims feel guilty for what happened to them,” he said.
After nearly 50 years of silence, Krzysztof Warchol has overcome his feelings of guilt and shame. He grew up near Kraków, was confirmed by Cardinal Wojtyla and as a teenager was raped by a priest in the city. As the demonisation of Ekke Overbeek builds in Poland, Warchoł and his girlfriend describe him as an “angel”.
“The recent events have made me decide to speak out with my face, I no longer want to hide,” he says. “I’m just so grateful for this book.”