Losing faith in the Polish church

WARSAW, Poland — Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church is losing its faithful as the country becomes more secular and the church finds its moral authority sapped by sexual scandals and increasing concern over its political influence.

The sexual scandals facing the Polish church are still a far cry from those faced by its sister churches in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Germany and many other countries, where clerics have been accused of molesting children, and bishops with sweeping the the issue under the rug. But an old embarrassment has highlighted the Polish church's difficulty in grappling with the issue.

Earlier this summer, Archbishop Juliusz Patez, the retired bishop of the central Polish city of Poznan accused of molesting seminarians in his diocese, was reported to be close to receiving a decision from the Vatican reversing previous sanctions placed on him by John Paul II.

Paetz retired in 2002 but never admitted any wrongdoing. A church investigation into his behavior petered out without any results, although the cleric who had leveled the initial charges ended up resigning from the priesthood in disgust at the lack of progress in bringing Paetz to justice.

Paetz has battled hard to stay in the public eye — appearing at events like the recent funeral of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president killed in an April 10 plane crash, to the dismay of more circumspect churchmen.

The Vatican was preparing to again allow him to publicly administer sacraments but the report aroused fury in some church circles, including a reported threat by his successor, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, to resign, before Rome began to deny it was reconsidering a change in Paetz's status.

Although the issue was quickly hushed up again and the hierarchy closed ranks behind Patz, it remained a potential threat to the position of the Polish Catholic Church as it tried to retain its influence in an increasingly secular country, Tomasz Terlikowski, a conservative columnist with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, said.

“The conclusion from the actions of the church authorities is that if someone wants to clear up an issue of sexual molestation in the church, they cannot stop with Catholic authorities,” Terlikowski said, adding that the collapse of the church's authority in Spain, Ireland and Germany was linked to attempts to keep sexual scandals secret. “In these cases, victims should go to secular courts and to continue to pursue the case until a verdict has been delivered.”

In addition to trying to keep scandals far from public view, the church has been trying to retain its political influence as a way of ensuring the continued Catholic character of Poland. 

Senior clergymen made their preferences in the recent presidential elections pretty clear, stressing that voters should support the more Catholic of the two candidates and underlining the importance of not funding in vitro fertilization procedures. The obvious suggestion was for people to vote for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party, not Bronislaw Komorowski, the nominee of the centrist Civic Platform and the eventual winner of the election.

Some priests even told their parishioners how to vote in their Sunday sermons.

Those actions have prompted a sharp rebuke from Civic Platform, which until now had been almost as socially conservative and pro-church as Law and Justice.

“The church made a big mistake, crossing the boundary in political activism,” said Slawomir Nowak, the head of Komorowski's successful campaign. “ I regret that some priests confused the pulpit with a political podium.” 

In the Paetz sexual abuse case, Tomasz Polak, the priest who first filed the complaint against Paetz and then resigned, changing his last name from Weclawski, said the church's inability to deal with such a case  showed “the strength of the mechanism of avoidance and defense.” The Polish church's peculiar insulation from the trends that have affected religion in the rest of the world was quickly ending, he added.

The Polish church was the country's main defense during 45 years of Communist dictatorship. It allowed for the formation of a civic space uncontrolled by the Communists who were not powerful enough to destroy the church as they had in other Soviet bloc countries. Intellectuals and workers close to the church played a leading role in the formation of the Solidarity labor union 30 years ago. The church's position was further strengthened by the 1979 election of Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, as pope.

The loyalty given to the church for its past protection and the immense affection for Pope John Paul II helped protect the Polish church from the secularism of the rest of Europe. But following Poland's admission to the European Union in 2004 and the Polish pope's death in 2005, attendance at Sunday masses has been slowly dropping (although it is still much higher than in much of the rest of the continent), while the number of young men and women joining seminaries, monasteries and convents is falling steeply.