A woman praying in front of a portrait of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland

This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

In the early hours of a February morning, three men dressed in black, carrying a ladder and ropes, slipped through the quiet streets in the northern Polish city of Gdansk. They decided to do what the city council had refused to. It was still dark, only hours before the opening of a Vatican summit on child abuse. The men slung a rope around the clay neck of a high-up statue and pulled hard until it toppled over, breaking away from its stand and crashing to the ground.

The monument of Henryk Jankowski (1936-2010), a priest and a key figure in the Solidarity trade union movement that overthrew the Communist leadership in 1989, no longer symbolised heroism for many. Since the emergence of accusations that Jankowski sexually abused minors, the monument stood for the failure of Polish bishops and politicians to address child abuse in their country’s clergy. Civic activists had appealed several times to the council to remove the statue, but were told it was impossible. “There was no other way,” says Michal Wojciechowicz, a 54-year-old writer, who was abused by Jankowski in his youth. “Child abusers cannot be heroes.”

The toppling of Jankowski was a step towards forcing the government and clergy to reckon with the problem of child abuse in the Church. But what really forced everyone to take notice was the 2019 documentary Tell No One. The film shows victims who are now adults confronting elderly priests about the abuse they suffered decades earlier, and details how priests accused of paedophilia were transferred to other parishes where they could continue working with children.

Within a week of its YouTube posting, the film was viewed more than 18 million times. It has transfixed one of Europe’s most deeply devout countries, where 87 per cent of the population identify as Catholic. The case of Father Pawel Kania, which features in the film, illustrated a pattern of cover-ups similar to other Catholic child abuse cases, from Boston to Dublin. Kania was detained by Church authorities in 2005 for trying to seduce children and possessing child pornography. Rather than punishing him or reporting him to the authorities, the Church relocated him to a parish in the city of Bydgoszcz, where he carried on working with children.

The real extent of child abuse in Poland’s Catholic Church is unknown. In March, data compiled by the Church’s statistics institute and child protection centre for the first time revealed that over the last three decades, 382 clergymen were reported for sexual abuse involving 625 minors, more than half of whom were under the age of 15. And less than half of all victims reported it to the police. But according to Jesuit Adam Zak, the Polish episcopate’s coordinator for child protection and youth: “This is still only the tip of the iceberg.”

“With each story that I heard, I understood that I was working on something much bigger than what the Church told us,” says Tomasz Sekielski, the director of Tell No One. “For years, the Church claimed that paedophilia in the Polish clergy does not exist,” he said. The filmmaker hoped he could “break the conspiracy of silence”.

And that he did. In the two weeks that followed the documentary’s release, 150 people who said they were abused by the clergy contacted Have No Fear, an organisation that offers victims of child abuse counselling and legal help. “As people started speaking, more and more stories came out. It seemed like no one was paying attention before,” says Wojciechowicz. The writer kept his story hidden for decades. “Jankowksi was a very important person for us. A guy like that couldn’t be doing what he did to me. I couldn’t speak about it, because fighting communism was more important,” he says.

The film has sparked what Jacek Kuchaczyk, President of the Institute of Public Affairs, one of Poland’s leading think-tanks, has called a “grassroots revolution” that is interrogating the Church’s place in public life. As the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said, “The Church has lost the ability to act as the conscience of the nation,” citing the paedophilia scandal. Questions about the future of the Church are “polarising society”, says Kuchaczyk. A significant portion of society argues that the Church wields too much power in Poland, and calls for a separation between government and clergy, while others see the Catholic faith as a key element of national identity, whose influence must be protected.

The film made such waves that both the Catholic Church and the government were forced to respond. The Polish bishops’ conference responded with a message thanking all the filmmakers for their exposures, which had “convulsed the Church community”, and lamenting the fact that the Church had “not done everything” to counter the “violent and brutal despoilment” of children. But Sekielski said: “No one [from the Church] tried to meet people from my movie, no one called them or asked if they needed anything.”

Then, the Polish government promised to increase prison sentences for paedophilia from its current 12-year term to up to 30 years. “It is more symbolic than anything, the courts need to actually start implementing these harsh sentences,” Anna Frankowska, a board member of Have No Fear, told CNN. But no one from the Church has resigned or been prosecuted to date. “The victims are still left alone and cannot count on real help from the Church or government,” said Sekielski.

In a country where the Church has historically seen itself as a crucial element in the fight for civil freedoms, and now has influence over education, culture, law and government, the scandal quickly took on political significance. “There’s a deep-seated historical belief that goes back to the 19th-century literature and political ideology, that Poland has a destiny to defend Catholicism,” says Kucharczyk. Under the secular Communist regime, many Polish priests pushed the limits of obedience by sheltering the opposition and giving anti-Communist sermons. By the late 1980s, the Church was considered the primary vehicle for anti-communist activism under the Solidarity movement.

With 40 per cent of the public attending church weekly in Poland, religious practice remains at levels that Western Europe has not known since the 1950s. Until recently, Wojciechowicz carried on attending church, despite the abuse he had endured.“It wasn’t because I believed in God, I went because it’s our Polish way,” he says.

The conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has ruled Poland since 2015, has forged a tight alliance with the majority of Polish bishops and portrays itself as a defender of Christendom.

“Who raises a hand against the Church, wanting to destroy it, raises a hand against Poland,” PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński once said, adding: “There is no Poland without the Church.” Many priests, especially in smaller towns and villages, often openly back the party. While PiS has come under opposition at home and from the EU for its constitutional and judicial reforms, including the appointment of judges loyal to the ruling party, the Church has largely refrained from joining in the condemnation.

In turn, “[PiS] promises to introduce all the Church’s policies and its rhetoric reflects that used by bishops,” says Kucharczyk. PiS has favoured Catholic positions on religious education in schools and defends the country’s strict abortion laws. In November, a new law was introduced banning sex education from the national curriculum and treating it as “paedophilia”; any person found to be “encouraging” sexual behaviour in a person below the age of 15 could get prison time. Instead of sex education, children are given “Preparation for Family Life” programs, based on ideas of family, marriage and Christian morality. Access to the morning-after pill – or, as it has been rebranded, “the early abortion pill” – was restricted in 2017, and now requires a prescription. The “threat” of LGBT rights featured prominently in the ruling party’s campaign, with officials and some Catholic leaders branding the community as “paedophiles” and a “rainbow plague”. Meanwhile, local councils announced their decision to make their municipalities “LGBT free.”

It’s therefore hardly surprising that PiS came to the Church’s defence when Tell No One was released. PiS officials accused the film of being politically motivated and undermining the Church ahead of the May European Parliament elections. “It fits into a kind of campaign against the Church and us, Catholics,” said Ryszard Terlecki, a Deputy Speaker in the Parliament. Ryszard Legutko, a member of the European Parliament for PiS, argued that most abuse cases involved boys aged between 12 and 17, meaning they were “pederasty, not paedophilia”. For years, the Church has also deflected the subject of abuse. In 2012, Archbishop Jozef Michalik, a former president of the Episcopal Conference, blamed divorced parents and feminists for abuse by clergy – as well as saying that children had lured priests. ‘The Church and government have turned the allegations on its head, and allegations are conflated with homosexuality,” said Kucharczyk.

Rather than damaging support for PiS, Kucharczyk argues the scandal “indirectly benefited” PiS and has “cemented” the alliance between the party and the Church. Twisting the accusations has allowed PiS to legitimise their own anti-LGBT rhetoric. This in turn has helped mobilise the defenders of the Church to vote for PiS. PiS remains Poland’s most popular party, thanks to a strong economy, generous welfare payouts, low unemployment and a fragmented opposition. This is reflected in the party’s victories in both the October general election and May’s European Parliament elections.

The child abuse scandal has “failed to translate into a political revolution”, but there is a newly strengthened critical force in Polish politics, says Kucharczyk. While he says it is currently relatively small, he expects it to grow. Robert Biedroń, head of the centre-left party Spring, has for months denounced the close ties between the Church and government as “pathological” and called for their strict separation. “The special treatment of the Church should not mean anymore that we tolerate things like paedophilia,” said Biedroń. Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform, the main opposition party, chimed in: “Who raises a hand against Polish children, raises a hand against Poland,” he said, referencing Kaczyński’s earlier statement.

The scandal has undoubtedly impacted attitudes towards the Church. A 2018 Pew Research Center study of religious practices found that there was a 23 percentage point difference between young adults and older people in how important religion is in their lives – the largest gap of all 45 countries surveyed. According to a June survey by the government-controlled CBOS agency, the public’s approval rating for the Church dropped to a 24-year low, with just 48 per cent of citizens viewing its activities as positive, while the number of young believers had dropped from 81 to 63 per cent in the space of a decade. Even though attendance at Mass is generally strong, just a quarter of Poles aged under 40 go weekly.

Anger at the Catholic Church has even resulted in violence. In June, a man stabbed a priest in the western city of Wrocław after discussing the clerical sex abuse scandal. A month later, another priest was beaten up in Szczecin, in the country’s north-west. “Ever more frequent attacks of hatred against believing people and priests” are a “growing concern for Church officials,” said Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan.

“The Church has won a battle, but not a war,” says Kucharzcyk. He predicts that in the long term, political parties affiliated with the Church will decline in popularity. Wojciechowicz, the writer who was abused, believes that the more the ruling party back the Church, the louder people will speak about the abuse. “If I were content with my reality, I wouldn’t have bothered to tell my story,” he says. “But I see this horrible alliance between the Church and government and it makes me so mad.”

Wojciechowicz is committed to raising his voice. He tells me that he is speaking at an event the week after our interview to raise awareness about the trauma caused by child abuse. He says: “The most important thing is that people are now listening.”