(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s Catholic Church was accused of trying to deflect responsibility for clergy sexually molesting children after its chief cleric stopped short of apologizing for the abuse following the publication of an unprecedented report revealing 382 cases.
During a two-hour long news conference on Thursday, Primate Wojciech Polak said that “each victim should evoke our pain, shame and guilt.” But bishops said pedophilia had become a widespread social phenomenon beyond their religious institution and refused to take a “zero tolerance” approach to offenders, comparing such proposals to the Nazi Holocaust.
Have No Fear, a Polish advocacy and support group for victims, was “outraged” by the document, which evaluated abuse over the past three decades, in part because its conclusions didn’t discuss the church’s responsibility for the crimes or hiding its offenders. It called for protests against bishops it said had aided predator priests.
While evidence of thousands of cases of abuse by priests elsewhere has contributed to the declining influence of the church, the Polish Episcopate has held firm in the face of scandals with help from its allies in the conservative government. The report was published in a bid to to quash allegations that it’s been covering up a pedophilia epidemic similar to those in Ireland and the U.S.
“Pedophilia is not just a problem of church, it’s global,” Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki told reporters. “On one hand there’s mass promotion of sex, there’s a whole industry pumping sexual content, and on the other hand, those that succumb to this are being attacked.”
The Episcopate’s survey of dioceses and orders revealed that boys under 15 years of age were the most likely victims of abuse. Less than half of the cases had been subject to justice system proceedings and just a quarter resulted in the expulsion of priests from the clergy. Forty percent ended in less severe penalties, including bans for working with minors.
Priests guilty of abuse should have a way to repent, Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski said, calling a zero-tolerance approach to offenders “totalitarian.”
“When the Nazis fought with Jews, applying a ‘zero tolerance’ mentality, it resulted in the Holocaust,” he said. “The church must be impeccably firm in stigmatizing evil, in the fight against evil, but it must also -- in accordance with what Jesus taught us -- call for conversion, penance and mercy to the perpetrators if they really want to take a new life, if they sincerely regret it.”
Throughout the Catholic world, abuse allegations are bringing down powerful figures in the hierarchy. Last month, Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, was laicized by the Vatican, which stripped him of all rights and obligations as a member of the clergy after he was found guilty of sex abuse involving both minors and adults.
An Australian court sentenced a cardinal to six years in prison for pedophilia this week, while earlier in March a French court sentenced a cardinal for failing to report cases of priest pedophilia.
In Poland, pressure to come clean intensified last year following the release of The Clergy, a movie about child abuse and greed in the church that broke box office records in this staunchly Catholic nation.
Archbishop Jedraszewski said that the Polish church’s abuse has to be “put into perspective of some 85 million children that are victims of wars, slavery, abortion and all kinds of evil.”
Have No Fear, the advocacy group, has published the names of 24 bishops who it alleged were protecting child-abusing priests and said that it had evidence of at least 400 cases of pedophilia by clergy since 1990. Sadly, it said, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a country where speaking out against the church was still a taboo.
Words such as “rape, sorry and justice” were not mentioned by the Episcopate, the group said on its website, urging Poles to protest in front of the offices of bishops on March 24.
“The church is attempting to water down the responsibility by putting things in a global context of child molesting or abuses within families,” Anna Frankowska from Have No Fear told Bloomberg. “We are outraged.”
(Updates with protest plans of advocacy group from third paragraph.)
To contact the reporters on this story: Marek Strzelecki in Warsaw at email@example.com;Wojciech Moskwa in Warsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrea Dudik at email@example.com, Maciej Onoszko, Rodney Jefferson
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.