Friday, October 11, 2013

Polish Catholic church rocked by sex abuse scandal

Jan Cienski
Financial Times
October 10, 2013

A paedophile scandal has hit the Catholic Church in Poland, as it struggles with an increasingly secular society and the challenge posed by the unconventional Pope Francis.

The Polish Church had, until now, successfully ducked the issue of sex abuse by priests in the same way that Catholic Churches in other countries did decades ago – moving molesting priests to different parishes and treating any investigation as an attack on the Church.

But scandals and clumsy responses from senior prelates have unleashed a wave of criticism that has left bishops scrambling to repair their public image.

The latest blunder came when Poland’s most senior Catholic cleric, Jozef Michalik, appeared this week to place some of the blame for paedophilia on children coming from broken homes.

The archbishop told reporters: “Often that inappropriate approach or abuse is released when the child is looking for love. It clings, it seeks. It loses itself and also draws in that second person.”

The resulting explosion of outrage, which came even from normally stalwart defenders of the Church, forced the archbishop, who was already facing criticism over his support for a priest later convicted of child abuse, hurriedly to call a news conference. He apologised for his comments and explained that he in no way blamed children who were victims of abuse.

Paedophilia scandals are rocking the Church at a time when it is fighting to stay relevant in a quickly changing country. Poland remains one of the most religious societies in Europe, with about 40 per cent of Poles attending Sunday mass, according to an annual church survey. However, that is down from 51 per cent in 1980.

The scandals could make the Church’s situation even more difficult, said Tadeusz Bartos, a theologian and former priest. “Today the paedophilia question is being handled as badly as possible by the Polish bishops, which means it will dominate the media for years,” he said. “If that happens, then the Church’s authority will drop to zero.”

The Polish Church moved this week to make clear that it has no tolerance for paedophilia, setting up new regulations in line with Vatican policy. The new rules include steps to prevent such abuse. But they do not force Church officials to report incidents of child abuse to civil authorities.

The Church faces compensation claims from victims, the first of which is now in the Polish courts. While the Church is resisting demands to pay out, the claims underline the erosion of deference once afforded to the institution.

This was underscored by the relentless grilling that bishops faced from reporters this week after the clerics issued their recommendations for dealing with child abuse.

The past few weeks have seen a growing number of sex abuse cases, which have dominated Polish media.

Another senior archbishop, Henryk Hoser, came under fire for not removing a priest from active duty who had been convicted this year of molesting two altar boys. A news conference on the subject was so clumsily handled that the archbishop had to fire one of his priests for appearing condescending about the issue.

Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s representative in the Dominican Republic and a Polish national, was recalled to Rome this summer after being accused of sexual abuse in the Caribbean nation. He has not publicly commented on the allegation.

Wojciech Gil, a Polish missionary who also worked in the Dominican Republic, is also accused of child molestation. The priest, who is in Poland and refuses to return to the Dominican Republic to face prosecutors, denied the accusations in a Polish television interview.

Over the past two centuries the Catholic Church has been the leading defender of Poland during periods of oppression, especially during the Communist dictatorship which ended in 1989.

Now, with Poland an increasingly confident democracy, instead of fighting Communism, the Church is battling against in vitro fertilisation, trying to block a government programme to reimburse infertile couples for the procedure. It is also pushing back against attempts by the centrist government of premier Donald Tusk to approve civil partnerships, fearing that would open the way for gay marriage.

The conservative Polish Church has been confused by the comments of Pope Francis and his calls for tolerance of gays and for Church officials to live a poorer and more humble lifestyle.

“All the anti-Church media try to persuade us that the main theme of Pope Francis’s pronouncements is the wealth of the Church,” Archbishop Michalik said in a sermon in Czestochowa, the site of Poland’s holiest relic, an icon of Mary, this summer. “They obviously want to use the Pope to battle the Church.”

original article at Financial Times

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