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Poland examines the Catholic clergy's sex abuse

December 6, 2018

Staunchly Catholic Poland has been slow to address the problem of sexual assaults on children by clergy — and the pressure is now mounting. Bishops plan to present a report in 2019. Monika Sieradzka reports from Warsaw.

A picture of John Paul II in Poland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Zawrel

On a map of Poland, Marek Lisinski marks the places where sexual abuse by priests by Catholic clergy has been reported. In several dozen cases, the perpetrators have been prosecuted. Lisinski has an archive filled with many more statements from victims.

The 50-year-old makes his living repairing windows. But Lisinkski's real commitment is to the foundation that he founded five years ago: Have No Fear. Its aim is to help the victims of sex abuse. "I am doing this because I know how lonely and helpless a victim of abuse feels," he told DW.

Lisinski knows the trauma and isolation firsthand. At the age of 12, he, like many of his peers in their small village north of Warsaw, became an altar boy at the local church. After Sunday Mass, he would be taken to the vicarage, where he often stayed overnight. The priest offered him sweets, which were scarce during the time of shortages under the Communist government.

"The priest took advantage of the emotional deficits in my family," Lisinski said. "He bound himself to me and sexually abused me for months."

When, after 30 years, Lisinski took his account to the bishop's court, he re-experienced his trauma. "In front of the priests in their black gowns, I had to describe all that had happened to me," he said. "I had to go through every detail in the presence of these men. That was horrific."

The priest who abused him was suspended from work in his home village for three years. He now serves again as a pastor. "He received virtually no punishment," Lisinski said. Lisinski has since sued the priest and is now awaiting the verdict.

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Perpetrators are tolerated

According to Polish media reports, almost 30 Catholic priests were sentenced by bishops' courts between 2002 and 2012. The number of unreported cases is likely higher. The overall figures are not known because the church records remain closed.

In one of the most shocking cases reported, a pastor who was found guilty of assaulting six girls was allowed to continue working in his village. The bishop defended him by saying the children had sought "proximity to the priest."

Priests can also be punished by state courts, but the sentences are usually light. In recent years, only 60 cases have gone to trial. If a prison sentence is imposed, it generally results in probation.

Victims rarely receive adequate compensation. When money is paid out at all, it is under the auspice of "Christian goodness" — not because suffering has been caused.

This is why a ruling by a Polish court in October caused a sensation: For the first time, a religious order, rather than an individual priest, was required to pay compensation — in this case amounting to €250,000 ($285,000)

The damages awarded were paid, but now the religious order wants its money back and has appealed to the Supreme Court. The clergy refers to Polish canon law, which assigns responsibility to the perpetrators and not to the institution. In comparison, Catholic churches elsewhere in the European Union, as well as in Australia and the US, assume liability and compensate the victims.

Polen sexueller Missbrauch durch Priester
The "Baby Shoes Remember" campaign drew attention to crimes committed by clergyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Luczniewski

Taboo-breaking film
In October, the Polish film The Clergy was released in cinemas. For the first time, it dealt with the societal and religious taboos surrounding lust for power, corruption, sex, and abuse in the ranks of the clergy. More than 5 million people watched the blockbuster — a record number of cinemagoers in Poland.

Under the motto "Hands off the Children," thousands of people protested in Warsaw against the tolerance shown to priests who have been found to have committed sexual assault. And, as part of the "Baby Shoes Remember" campaign, children's shoes were hung on church fences all over Poland as a reminder of abuse. In most places, however, they were quickly removed by churchgoers.

But, recently, the Polish Bishops' Conference announced that the church intends to tackle the problem. "We ask God, the victims of the abuse and their families and the church community for forgiveness for the suffering inflicted on children, young people and those close to them," the group declared in a statement released in November.

Some of the 41 Polish dioceses have already released figures. In each instance, a handful of unnamed perpetrators have either been disciplined or are in therapy.

The bishops are collecting further data on abuse within the clergy and intend to present a report in 2019. The full extent of the assault remains unknown for now; it will depend on how many bishops want to be transparent. The public will not have access to church records. According to canon law, they must remain closed.

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