Bishops defend the Polish Church's record on tackling abuse

Poland’s Catholic bishops apologised for sexual abuse of children by priests and defended the Polish Church’s record on tackling abuse.

During their plenary meeting in Warsaw, the bishops also announced that they had tightened procedures for handling abuse allegations.

“The paedophilia problem is appearing in schools, sports clubs and facilities for education and upbringing, but also, it pains us to admit, in Church circles,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement at the close of the meeting on Wednesday.

“We apologise for those clergy who have harmed children and are doing everything in our power so such situations are not repeated in future. We offer and will continue to offer pastoral and therapeutic help to harmed children and young people, and we stress there is no tolerance for paedophilia,” the bishops said. The statement called paedophilia a “most serious offence” that “cried to heaven for vengeance.”

It added that Polish society needed a “thorough education” on how to protect children, but said media coverage of paedophilia should respect privacy and avoid “harming third parties such as families, schools, parishes and clergy.”

Later, in a separate statement, the bishops said their record in response to clergy abuse allegations was appropriate and criticised what they called a “media campaign” against the Church in relation to such cases.

“Given the media campaign now being conducted, the bishops do not agree to sins of certain clergy being exploited to stigmatise the whole church community,” the statement said.

“It is also harmful to forget the sacrificial pastoral work of thousands of priests caring for the faith of Poles and the nation’s good. Evil should be given its real name, and responsibility to compensate for these acts lies with those who commit the evil.”

The Polish Church has faced accusations of covering up sexual abuse by priests, 27 of whom have been convicted in publicised cases.

In March 2012, the bishops’ conference said it had adopted guidelines in line with Vatican instructions, but would not offer material damages or “cooperate with the judicial process” when confessional secrets were involved.

Jesuit Father Adam Zak was named in June as the Church’s child protection officer. In September, the Church launched an anti-abuse training programme for priests.

The statements follow criminal investigations against Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who is accused of sex with male teenagers as Vatican nuncio to the Dominican Republic, and Father Wojciech Gil, accused of raping boys in the same country.

Bishop Jozef Guzdek of the Military Ordinariate of Poland apologised and pledged “zero tolerance” after one of his priests was defrocked for raping an underage girl and forcing her to have an abortion. A day later, the Wroclaw Archdiocese defended its decision to allow a parish rector to return in his post despite being sentenced in 2002 for molesting boy altar servers.

The bishops’ plenary was sidetracked by international coverage of remarks by its president, Archbishop Jozef Michalik of Przemysl, who told journalists sexual abuse often occurred “when a child is looking for love” and “gets lost and draws the other person in.”

The archbishop also said that divorce could be compared to sexual abuse in doing “great harm” to children, and also said “many cases of molestation could be avoided by a healthy relationship between parents.”

At a later news conference, Archbishop Michalik apologised for a “misunderstanding.” He said he believed it was “a bad person who draws the child into the orbit of his improper interests.”

The Gazeta Wyborcza daily said the archbishop’s remarks were akin to “blaming women for rape,” and would revive complaints that he had allowed a parish rector in the Przemysl Archdiocese to continue preparing children for first Communion despite being convicted of sexual abuse in 2004.

In a report released on Wednesday, KAI, the Polish Church’s Catholic information agency, said the bishops had approved new “principles for preventing cases of paedophilia” during their meeting, as well as three additions to their 2012 guidelines setting out “concrete forms of care” for victims, canonical procedures for handling accusations and an abuse-related formation programme for seminarians.

It added that bishops and religious order superiors would also offer “concrete forms of spiritual and psychological help” to victims of abuse and their families.

However, the bishops’ conference secretary-general, Bishop Wojciech Polak, said that Polish law, unlike that of the US, placed no corporate responsibility on churches to provide financial compensation to abuse victims.

The bishop was reacting to questions about a $64,000 court claim by a 25-year-old victim against the Church’s Koszalin-Kolobrzeg Diocese after it failed to reach a settlement. The claim is the first in Poland, where 64 percent of citizens negatively viewed the Church’s handling of abuse in an early October survey published in the Rzeczpospolita daily.